Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Hazardous Trenches, Good Luck and Bad Journalism

Eric Moreno is an extremely lucky guy. He was running some sewer pipe down in an unshored 7-8 foot deep trench last week when it collapsed on top of him. He could only breathe because the brim of his hard hat created a small pocket of air that separated his face from the dirt.

But even a breathing pocket often isn't enough to save the life of a trench collapse victim. A cubic yard of soil weights about 2700 pounds, the weight of a mid-sized automobile. A trench collapse may contain three to five cubic feet of soil. Do the math. Even if you're only buried up to your waist, successful rescue is unlikely; you're probably going to die. I've written before about workers, like Mike Morrison and Willie Hodge who both died as a result of trench collapses, even though they were only buried up to their waists.

My beef here is with the articles about Moreno's lucky escape. Not one of them (here, here, here, and here) mentioned that there is an OSHA standard that requires trenches deeper than 5 feet to be shored.

As I've written before, it wouldn't have taken the reporter too much time to add some valuable information to this article that might have gone beyond the human interest/shit happens/what-a-lucky-guy focus. If she couldn't spend 15 minutes on the web, she might have even called OSHA for some general information about trench collapses.

And then the readers (and construction workers) would have known that:

a) This tragedy was preventable
b) The employer was probably breaking the law.
c) Trench collapses are not to be taken lightly; most workers don't come out alive.

But Moreno's a tough guy:

Despite what was clearly a traumatic experience, Moreno said he is not afraid to continue working, and intends to return to work next week.

Moreno works for Gregg Electric Inc. of Ontario, a subcontractor for Oltmans Construction Co. of Whittier, a general contractor.

"I don't think I'd hesitate to get right back in," Moreno said. "I don't think I have any fears about that."

But if he's being sent down into unprotected 8-foot deep trenches, maybe he should have some fears. Maybe he and others working in unsafe workplaces should have been trained about the hazards of trenches and the laws that are meant to control those hazards.