OSHA throws book at contractor for trenching death. I hear lame excuses for ignoring risk

It is maddening to read yet again about a worker being killed in a trench cave-in. These deaths are completely preventable by using some pretty cheap equipment. The death of Donald “DJ” Meyer in December 2016 is especially tragic. The 33 year-old is survived by his son Ashten, 8. The youngster’s mother died unexpectedly two years ago.

I learned this week that OSHA has thrown the book at Meyer’s employer. They issued citations against Arrow Plumbing for six willful and eight serious violations and proposed a $714,142 penalty.

Arrow Plumbing was responsible for making certain its excavation projects were safe. For DJ Meyer and his co-workers, they failed to do so. But the safety problems at this company are even worse. Four weeks after Meyer’s death, OSHA inspectors found employees at another Arrow Plumbing jobsite working in an unprotected trench. The hole was 8 to 13 feet deep, 43 feet long and accumulating water—a recipe for another disaster.

Aluminum trench box with ladder to enter and exit the excavated area.

I just don’t get it. Why don’t some companies ensure trench protection equipment is used?

The equipment to shore up a trench is CHEAP. You can rent a small trench box for about $100 per day, or can purchase one for about $5,000. Some contractors instead use aluminum hydraulic shores. For a small job, they might need 3 or 4, at rental cost of $10 per shore, plus the fee for the pump bucket and tools. A contractor could buy their own shoring system with all the equipment needed for a few thousand dollars.

The National Utility Contractors Association’s (NUCA) teamed up with OSHA and other groups last week to sponsor a nationwide trench safety stand-down. Its purpose was to raise awareness of trenching hazards and emphasize the life-saving importance of trench protective systems.

In the first five months of 2017, 15 workers have been killed in trench cave-ins, according to OSHA. Nineteen more workers have been injured in trench incidents.

I spoke with Brian Drake in OSHA’s Kansas City regional office about trench safety. I told him how I continue to be baffled to read about trenching fatalities. He said he feels the same way. These deaths are so senseless.

Over the years, Drake and his OSHA colleagues have heard a variety of excuses from employers about why they didn’t use a trench box or shoring equipment. Some of the most common?

“We didn’t think we’d need it.”

“We didn’t think we’d be going that deep.”

“We thought it was just a quick job.”

Photo from OSHA safety poster (http://bit.ly/2sqeWyo)

 

Tangled within these excuses is probably something like this:

“By the time we install the trench protection we could be done with this job.”

It pains me to think about 8 year-old Ashten Meyer. He will probably learn some day how easy and cheap it would have been for his dad to have been protected in that trench.

Comments

  1. #1 Russ ohare
    Grain Valley
    August 15, 2017

    That was my nephew and quite frankly it pisses me off they violated the laws and rules only a month later!

  2. #2 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH
    August 16, 2017

    Russ,
    I am sorry for your family’s loss. When I read about it I was compelled to write my blog post above.

    Your nephew’s death was completely preventable. Your family should think about meeting with the local district attorney’s office about filing criminal charges against Arrow Plumbing. They may decline to do so, but your family could help to raise the local government’s consciousness that your nephew’s death and those of other workers should be considered a crime. Fee free to contact me if you wish to discuss further. cmonfort_at_gwu.edu