OSHA estimates that one cubic yard of soil can weigh up to 3,000 pounds. If you were to look at a cubic yard of soil, you would have a hard time believing that it weighs over a ton. But if you had a cubic yard of soil fall on you, then it would be easier for you to believe the damage that can occur when thousands of cubic yards fall on workers in a trench collapse.
In 2015, 11 construction workers in the United States died in trench collapses. By October 2016, that number was already at 23 deaths for the year and counting. This is a type of construction accident that results in horrible types of worker deaths, and OSHA intends to do something about it as heftier fines are issued.
Why Are Trench Fines So High?
Many experts within the construction industry, including OSHA itself, believe that every trench accident is preventable. OSHA has issued an updated worksheet on everything construction companies can do to prevent trench collapses and the OSHA safety rules that apply to the various types and sizes of trenches that are used. Unfortunately, every year, there are more worker deaths attributed to the improper construction and use of trenches.
OSHA has found that fines tend to be one of the more effective ways to impress upon construction companies the importance of worker safety. But there are many situations where construction companies prefer to cut corners, take chances, and pay the fines if they are caught. From January to October 2016, 12 people were injured in trench accidents and 23 were killed. The obvious trend is that more workers get killed than injured in trench collapses, and that has been one of the reasons for the significant increase in OSHA fines associated with trench collapses.
What Is A Trench?
In construction, a trench is a man-made excavation that is deeper than it is wider. By OSHA rules, a trench that is five feet deep or deeper requires some type of protective system in place to prevent harm to workers. OSHA requires that a support system designed by certified engineers be used on trenches that are 20 feet deep or deeper. When a trench goes beyond five feet in depth, it is more of a risk to completely bury workers if the sides of the trench collapse.
The most obvious danger associated with a collapsing trench is that the tons of earth that collapse from each side could crush any workers who are caught in the way of the collapse. Even if a trench is five feet deep, it can still bury workers up to their necks and significantly restrict their breathing. Over time, even a worker who is only buried up to his neck can still suffocate from a trench collapse. There is very little room for error when it comes to creating and working in construction trenches.
How Are Trenches Used?
In construction, the most common uses for trenches are installing utilities, plumbing, and sewer systems. Since trenches are so dangerous, the fatality rate for workers who have to utilize trenches is 112 percent higher than in any other type of construction method. A trench can be turned into a fortified utility tunnel when the project is over, or it can be filled in after it is no longer useful to make way for other phases of the project.
One of the most common types of protection used in a trench is a device called a trench box. It is a solid structure that is placed inside of the trench to prevent the walls from caving in on the workers. However, if the trench is taller than the trench box, then the trench box only acts as another layer of material for rescue workers to dig through when the trench collapses. When a trench collapses, it is usually due to the construction company not taking the right safety precautions. This blatant disregard for OSHA rules, that more often than not leads to injuries and worker deaths, has caused OSHA fines to skyrocket.
OSHA Stepping Up Trench Violations
OSHA fines for trench violations can run as low as $37,000, to well over $150,000. OSHA reserves the right to fine based on the severity of the incident and the number of workers involved. The severity of the fine is usually tied more to the degree of disregard for safety as opposed to worker lives lost. In South Dakota, a large trench collapse resulted in a total of $95,000 in fines for the contractor, despite the fact that there were no worker deaths in the incident. This contractor was a repeat trench safety offender, and being a repeat offender carries severe penalties in the eyes of OSHA.
Any construction company that cuts corners on trench safety should be concerned with more than just OSHA fines. A trench collapse in New York City in April 2015 resulted in $110,000 in fines and felony charges pressed against the contractor and subcontractor involved. The owner of the general contractor was convicted of criminally negligent homicide, while the site supervisor for the subcontractor was sent to prison for three years.
The April 2015 incident proved to be a tipping point for OSHA in terms of cracking down on safety violators when it comes to trench work in the construction industry. The death of the worker and negligence of the general and subcontractors made headlines all over the country. The construction industry protested loudly when the convictions were handed down, but it was a sign from OSHA and the legal authorities around the country that worker safety was much more important than the corporate bottom line.
A Complete Disregard For Safety Is Not Tolerated
In the eyes of OSHA and most construction safety experts, construction trench accidents are examples of a complete disregard for safety. As a trench gets deeper, the costs for applying the proper safety mechanisms get higher. Construction companies attempt to avoid those costs by hoping their trenches remain intact, but cutting corners only leads to trouble. Not only does the cost for safety get higher as a trench gets deeper, but so does the imminent danger to the workers. A lack of safety concerns when using trenches has become an open invitation to disaster.
While the real battle against corporate disregard for safety in trench work was put in the spotlight in 2015, it was the rising surge of deaths in 2016 that galvanized OSHA’s resolve for getting to the heart of the matter. Fines for trench violations have been increased, and OSHA is no longer opposed to getting criminal investigators involved in trench collapse cases. Contractors now face the possibility of an increasingly significant set of fines, and the potential for criminal charges when they cut corners on trench safety.
One trench collapse is too many in any given year, but the rising number of trench collapses leading to worker deaths has forced OSHA to hit construction companies harder where it hurts the most – the corporate bottom line. The fines for violating trench safety guidelines are increasing, and the potential for other serious penalties is a reality as well. OSHA offers plenty of literature on how construction companies can protect their workers when using trenches, but it is up to the companies to utilize the information and prevent worker deaths that should never happen in the first place.