Monday, January 05, 2004

"An Exceptionally Good Day:" Trench Collapse Victim Survives

But Wouldn't It Have Been Better If The Trench Hadn't Collapsed in the First Place?

About ten years ago, I taught a workshop on trench safety for public employees in New England. I asked them to raise their hands if they had ever received any training. About half raised their hands. I asked one to describe his training.

"Sure, they train us," one of the local presidents replied, "They train us how to dig someone out when the trench collapses on them. And we've had to do it a bunch of times."
This story takes the cake. It seems a Sherwood, Arkansas, public works department employee, Charles Cadie, was working in an 8-foot deep, unprotected trench when it caved in on top of him. Luckily, it only covered him from the waste down, and the fire department was able to rescue him.

So far so good. But there are a couple of issues to note.

First, Arkansas is one of the 26 states in this country where it's still perfectly legal to kill public employees, so there was no requirement that a trench box be used. No OSHA investigation. No citation. Paul Sherwood, a federal OSHA inspector, came to the scene after the rescue:
"There was no shoring done, no sloping, and the spoil pile was on the edge of an eight-foot deep, two-and-a-half foot wide hole," Hansen said. "A citizen called our office later and said there were blood-soaked materials left laying around, and they were concerned kids would come around."

"If it had been a private contractor, we would have opened an investigation and could levy fines," Hansen said. "I will offer training free of charge to those employees who do that.
Then there's this
"All accidents are preventable," said [Michael Clayton, who supervises the department]. "We kind of let our guard down. (Oops. Sounds to me like your guard was never up.) Our guys are like brothers out there. (Oh yeah? I wouldn't treat my brother like that.) Everybody was totally caught off guard by it. (I'm sure. Who would ever have expected a trench to collapse? Anyone ever taken a trench safety course before?) I have all our construction work shut down until further notice. I'm going to get more safety training so that awareness can be at our highest level. (Good idea.) We're going to get a safety trailer with everything we think we might need for any type of construction work we might be doing. I've been here since 1994 and this is our first major accident."(Any minor accidents -- a.k.a "warnings" -- over the past 10 years? Or maybe a class or magazine article describing the principles of trench safety?)
Luckily, the fire department was equipped and trained to perform the rescue:
"We have had trench rescue capability since the late 1980s," said J.T. Cantrell, assistant chief of the training division for the Little Rock fire department. "A lot of departments don't do that. It's seldom-used equipment."
That's certainly a good thing, but....
"We've probably gotten a half-dozen trench survivors out alive in the last 20 years, and probably lost about that same number," Cantrell said. "Anytime you get a survivor out of a trench it's an exceptionally good day."
That's true, but wouldn't it have been a better day if they had prevented the trench collapse in the first place?

I've written and said this many times before: Any employer who kills a worker in an unprotected trench should get an automatic willful citation and -- unless there are awfully good extenuating circumstances (of which none come presently to mind) -- jail time. I don't believe that there is any public works director in this country who doesn't know about trench safety (except maybe this guy), and if they don't, it still should be considered criminal neglegence.

And while we're at it, isn't it about time for everyone to realize that public employees deserve the same right to a safe workplace that every other worker enjoys? How can this still be tolerated in the United States of America in the year 2004?