They are preventable, yet still kill about 40 people every year. With all the rules to follow and guidance to help, there is no reason for fatalities or injuries in trench accidents.

Sometimes accidents just happen, but there are those times when people take shortcuts or even worse, ignore safety. There are good reasons for onsite installers to consider the business ramifications of following safety rules. Here are three examples from the last year where companies ended up paying large fines; two of the cases involved no injuries.

Two workers were killed and another seriously injured in May in Boise, Idaho, when a trench about 11 feet deep caved in. The contractor had provided no cave-in protection or even a ladder for the employees working in the trench doing underground utility work. The company also did not have a competent person inspect the trench and had not trained its employees on the dangers of trench work. The three serious violations and one willful citation resulted in $77,319 in assessed penalties: one serious — $14,964 (lack of training, no ladder, no competent person); and one willful — $62,355 (lack of protective system).

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In announcing the fines, the area director of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), David Kearns, says the contractor, “made almost no effort to protect its workers, or even to understand the right ways to avoid the common hazards in this line of work. Hiring workers and assuming they know how to protect themselves is a sure path to tragedy.”

Nobody was hurt in a September incident in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, when OSHA inspectors found two workers in a 10-foot trench with no required protection and a ladder provided for escape more than 25 feet away. In addition, the required competent person was present but allowed the workers to enter the trench without proper cave-in protection. The two serious and one willful citations carried a penalty of $93,532: one serious — $6,236 (ladder violation, competent person allowing workers to enter trench); and one willful — $87,296 (no cave-in protection).

“Ground soil gives no warning prior to giving away, and a collapse can bury workers in just seconds,” says Robert Bonack, OSHA’s area director. “One cubic yard of soil can weigh as much as a small automobile, making it almost impossible to avoid tragedy.”

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In March, three weeks after a Chicago plumbing contractor was cited for exposing workers to unprotected trenches, while also not wearing hard hats, it was again cited for allowing four workers into an unprotected 5.5-foot trench. Despite being told by an investigator to provide proper protection, the same workers were caught by an inspector doing the same thing the next day in a 6.5-foot trench at another location. As the inspector left the site, workers went back into the trench, only to scramble out as the inspector returned. A short time later, a large section of the trench collapsed in the area where the employees had been working.

The early March incident drew a penalty of $69,300. Due to “wanton disregard” for worker safety in the later incidents, OSHA placed the company in its Severe Violator Enforcement Program and issued several citations with penalties totaling $275,728: serious — $8,231 (no hard hats on first day); repeat — $123,458 (no means of egress or protective system on the first day); repeat — $48,013 (no means of egress on second day); and willful — $96,026 (no protective system on second day).

Also, under the Severe Violator Enforcement Program, OSHA may inspect any of the company’s facilities or job sites if it has reasonable grounds to believe there are similar violations. According to OSHA, the program “focuses on recalcitrant employers that endanger workers by committing willful, repeat or failure-to-abate violations.”

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If the health of workers isn’t enough incentive, considering a company’s financial health may be. In addition, OSHA has teamed with the Department of Justice to pursue more felony criminal charges against individuals in safety and environmental issues. The effort was announced last December.

Misdemeanors under the Occupational Safety and Health Act are punishable with fines up to $10,000 and six months in prison, which hasn’t increased since the law was passed in 1970. If charged as a felony, the same acts could draw much larger fines and from five to 20 years in prison.


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