Monday, August 02, 2004

Luck: A Worker’s Best Protection Against Trench Collapses?

I’ve reported on a number of trench fatalities lately, and probably missed others. (Here, here, here, here and here) One of the most recent was in Western Pennsylvania.

This is a rather upsetting – although not surprising – article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette making the case that even with all of the recent trench collapse fatalities in the Pittsburgh area, "it may be more surprising is that such fatalities don't occur more often."
National experts on trench safety say federal requirements designed to prevent such collapses are routinely ignored by the thousands of small companies that dig utility lines or do other underground work across America every day. That imperils workers such as Marion E. Peters, 61, of Franklin Park, who died Wednesday when excavating a trench at least 7 feet deep in Economy, Beaver County.

"My experience is the majority [of trenches] are usually unprotected," said Jack L. Mickle, professor emeritus of civil engineering at Iowa State University. "It becomes a matter of roulette, just taking a chance" that dirt won't fill the trench.
OSHA’s trenching and excavation standard (29 CFR 1926.651 and .652) requires trenches over 5 feet deep to be shored or use a trench box.

The boxes might cost more than $5,000 to purchase or about $100 to rent for the day, but are well worth it, said George Kennedy, vice president of safety for the National Utility Contractors Association. Still, many companies, especially smaller ones, don't want to make the investment or slow down their work for the half-hour or so it might take to install them, Kennedy said.

"I think some people just take it for granted because they never had a problem before, never had a cave-in that trapped somebody," Kennedy said. "I'd say probably 20 percent of the people working in trenches are using the right protection."

Instead of trench boxes, excavators can shore up the walls hydraulically or slope the sides of the trench in a V-shape instead of vertically. Most contractors who don't use the boxes, however, also don't take alternative steps, experts said.

Finally, this is rather frightening:

OSHA's national statistics generally cite 30 to 50 cave-in deaths a year. Mickle, known as "Dr. Dirt" for his longtime safety work in the field, said some studies have suggested such cases are under-reported to the government, and could actually be three to four times as high.