Thursday, September 18, 2003

"Just a Horrible Accident"

Workers dying in trench collapses have always pissed me off -- mainly because they're completely avoidable and almost always a result of pressure to finish a job quickly or cheaply. In this case, 54-year old Steve Durbin, an employee of the Kokosing Construction Co., was crushed to death under more than 1000 pounds of wet soil when the trench he was in collapsed on top of him.

What really makes me mad though is when these deaths are portrayed in the press or employers who should know better as just freak, unavoidable accidents:

"It was just a horrible accident," [Health Police Detective Eric] Rardain said. "There doesn't appear to be any negligence on any person."

According to the Newark (Ohio) Advocate, the Executive Director of the construction company, Ronald Cochran assured the public that "we're investigating right alongside OSHA to find out what in the world caused this."

According to one article, "It was unknown what caused the collapse, which forced Durbin against the water line at about hip level."

Actually, it doesn't appear that it's too hard to determine "what in the world" killed Durbin. The article states that Durbin "was killed when the dirt wall of a 7-foot trench collapsed on him." Seven feet is 2 feet deeper than OSHA regulations allow without shoring or sloping.

So what's the problem? After all, OSHA will investigate and probably fine the company.

The problem is that the public -- which includes construction workers -- now have the impression that this was an unavoidable, "freak" accident that couldn't have been prevented. "What in the world" could have caused it? As if this is the first trench collapse that ever happened, instead of the same accident that needlessly kills who-knows-how-many workers every year.

Yes, six months from now, OSHA will probably cite the company. Maybe the citation will get a bit of press. Maybe not. But the impression will remain with most people that it was "just one of those things."

It is our responsibility -- those of us who know that these deaths are preventable -- to educate the press and the public that these deaths are preventable. Workers won't be safe until they understand the hazards of trenching and how to prevent them. Ultimately, workers need to have the right -- and the power -- to simply refuse to enter unprotected trenches, and they need the backing of a strong union and the support of an outraged community that has decided they've seen enough of their neighbors die.

Because Kokosing is a private sector contractor, OSHA is investigating the accident. But Kokosing is working under contract for the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT). In the mid 1980's I worked on an AFSCME public employee organizing campaign in Ohio and it was not uncommon for state and local employees to be trapped -- and sometimes die -- in trench collapses -- some 12 or 15 feet deep. But because public employees weren't (and still aren't) covered by OSHA in Ohio, there were never any investigations or penalties. Had Durbin been an ODOT employee, there would be no OSHA investigation today.

In 1990 I testified at a U.S. Senate hearing into proposed legislation that would have required all states to provide OSHA coverage for public employees. Testifying with me was a women who had recently lost her father -- a municipal employee nearing retirement -- in a trench collapse. She told the Senators that she had never suspected that her father had no OSHA coverage, that there was no law requiring the city to make his workplace safe.

Then she broke down -- along with the Senators and myself -- when she told of how her son would never be able to go fishing or to a ball game with his Grandpa.

Twelve years later, and more than 30 years after passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, most states in the country still provide no OSHA coverage for public employees. Public employees still die, their deaths still uninvestigated, the lessons still unlearned.

Just one of those things.