Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Slow Death By Trench Collapse

Media Asks Questions, Provides No Answers

Yet another story of a worker needlessly killed in a preventable collapse of an unshored trench. But this one has a particularly tragic twist.
From the beginning, rescuers could talk with Hodge, even provide him with basic emergency care. What they couldn't provide was an easy way out. Shortly after the accident happened, Hodge's family came to the scene, very upset. At first, rescuers told family members he was alright, even though he was trapped by tons of dirt. Hodge was talking, awake, even trying to help free himself. And his injuries didn't seem all that serious.
After four hours, he was removed from the trench and sent to the hospital where he died in the ER shortly after he arrived.

The intrepid reporter asks the right questions:
There are so many questions left to answer. First, what happened inside the ditch? You can expect state and federal safety officials to look into that. Next, why did Willie Hodge die, if he was only buried to his waist? Lee County Coroner Bill Harris says state doctors will try to answer that question when they do an autopsy here in Montgomery.
Unfortunately, the reporter doesn't take the time to actually answer the questions for his readers. So I'll do it for him.

1. What happened inside the trench? Gravity happened. Trench walls tend to collapse unless they're supported by shoring or trench boxes. That's why OSHA requires all trenches over 5 feet deep to be protected. Nothing too surprising. Workers are killed every week when illegal, unprotected trenches collapse.

2. Why did Will Hodge die if he was only buried to his waist? Soil is heavy. According to
A cube of soil measuring 1 ft. on a side weighs around 100 lb. A cubic yard of soil contains 27 of these, or 2700 lbs. total. This weighs about as much as a mid-sized automobile. A trench wall collapse might contain 3 to 5 cubic yards of soil, weighing from 8,000 to 14,000 lbs.

A person buried under only a couple of feet of soil would experience enough pressure on the chest area to prevent their lungs from expanding. Suffocation would take place within about 3 minutes. Even if the person is rescued in time, the heavy soil loads are likely to inflict serious internal injuries. A person buried in earth as high as his diaphragm, would not be able to dig himself out, and his chances of survival are low. If the face is even partially covered, death is almost certain.
It wouldn't have taken the reporter too much time to come up with the answers to these questions. If he couldn't spend 15 minutes on the web, he might have even called OSHA for some general information about trench collapses.

And then the readers 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.

So instead of getting pissed off and wondering why OSHA doesn't have more funding and more teeth, and why that employer doesn't get thrown in jail for killing this guy, readers are likely left thinking, "Shit happens. Too bad."

Not hard to understand why there isn't enough concern about workplace safety in this country.