Sunday, December 05, 2004

Trench Warfare

I write quite bit about trench fatalities and as my faithful readers know, there is little that makes me madder than a worker getting killed in an uprotected deep trench that's in clear violation of well-recognized OSHA standards. Furthermore, most of the stories you see in the news make no mention of why a trench caved in or that there are very strict and clear OSHA standards that have been violated. OSHA inspectors, even if they’re staring down into a 15 foot deep unprotected trench, will rarely comment on the problems with a trench until the final report is finished some months later.

So this article in the by Eugene Driscoll in the Danbury (CT) News Times is a pleasure to read.

Driscoll, who wrote about the trench death of Frederico Fernandes (listed in the Weekly Toll below) obviously "gets it." He’s got some good information about scope of the problem:
There were 48 trench deaths reported to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2003, up from 34 deaths in 2002.

Another federal agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, put the 2003 trench death toll at 53. More than half of the workers killed were Hispanic.

Industry experts say the true number of annual deaths might be twice the officially reported total. They say the reason for the carnage is simple: too many employers, especially owners of small construction companies, ignore safety rules.
And that
Trenches in Connecticut generally aren’t safe, according to OSHA statistics.

Officials inspected 44 excavation sites in the state from Oct. 1, 2003 to Sept. 30, 2004. Of those, 28 trenches — or 64 percent — were found to be in violation of federal regulations.
(This isn't too hard to believe. While there have been several trench deaths reported over the past few weeks, there have been an unusually high number of trench collapse rescues (here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here)as well. These are very lucky people, as a cubic yard of soil can weigh as much as a car, leaving little chance of surviving a collapse.)

So why do employers continue to put their employees' lives at risk?
Experts said it can take several man hours to prepare a trench. A backhoe or an excavator is needed to drop in a Dumpster-sized trench box.

“With construction, everything is about the cheapest bidder, so they gamble with their employees’ lives,” said Vincent A. Ettari, a Yorktown, N.Y., engineer who has testified for insurance companies in lawsuits triggered by trench accidents.


The chances of an OSHA inspector coming to the job site are slim, [a Danbury Connecticut construction company owner] said. Following the rules to the letter slows progress on the job, which costs contractors money.

There is a competitive issue as well, the contractor said. A company that breaks the rules works faster and cheaper than a company that follows them. That allows some companies to underbid competitors and get more work.
Most of the problems happen in small construction companies, according to Laborers International Union health and safety director Scott Schneider:
Of the trench collapses that killed people last year, 81 percent involved companies with fewer than 50 workers and 42 percent involved companies with less than 10 workers.

“What we’ve found is that a lot of these are on very small (construction ) sites,” Schneider said. “They figure they’ll only be in and out in a minute and the chances of an OSHA inspector coming are slim.”

Adding to the problem: 60 percent of the workers who were killed had never received trench safety training. They didn’t know the dangers heading in.
Schneider is on an OSHA committee studying trench safety. The committee made a number of suggestions to OSHA:
The committee called for more training for OSHA inspectors; a greater effort to reach small companies, a marketing campaign to make contractors pay attention; and the creation of trench safety seminars for immigrant workers.

Another idea is to rely more on local officials to be OSHA’s eyes and ears in the field.

Phoenix, for example, has a program in which firefighters inspect construction sites and work with bosses to make sure trenches are safe.

Schneider’s committee also suggested that companies found with unsafe trenches be put on a sort of probation. The bosses would be required to tell OSHA about every job the company takes for at least a year.

“We need a better way for OSHA to find these little jobs,” Schneider said.
Probation would be good, but personally I think there's nothing like the threat of a little jail time to focus the mind.