April 27, 2011 Liz Borkowski, MPH 1Comment

Those who work to prevent death, disease, and disasters often have a thankless task – if they do their jobs well, people rarely notice. But two OSHA inspectors recently saved workers’ lives in a very visible way, and the agency wrote about it on their blog, (Work in Progress).

Trench collapses are an all-too-common occurrence, and workers who are inside trenches when they cave in are often killed — essentially smothered to death with mud. This is why OSHA requires that trenches (or any construction excavation) deeper than five feet must be protected against collapse. As OSHA notes in its Construction Safety guide, protective systems include sloping the trench walls (with slope angles depending on soil type), installing supports to shore up the trench sides, and the use of trench boxes to prevent cave-ins.

All too often, though, employers ignore these safety steps. And in two recent instances, OSHA inspectors who saw unshored trenches were able to order the employees out of them shortly before they collapsed:

On March 8, Rick Burns was performing a worksite inspection on a trench being dug by Trimat Construction in Mercerville, Ohio, when he directed an employee to exit the trench believing collapse was imminent. Unfortunately, he was right. Within five minutes, it did collapse and could have buried the worker alive. The employee was working in a trench at a depth greater than 10 feet without cave-in protection. “The actions of the compliance officer likely saved this worker’s life,” said David Wilson, assistant area director in the Columbus area office.

Similarly, on April 20, Compliance Officer Eliseo Hernandez and Assistant Area Director Joseph Roesler from the Mobile, Ala., Area Office were traveling to an inspection near Auburn, Ala. Along the way they noticed an open excavation where employees were not protected from a cave-in. They stopped and immediately opened an inspection. The excavation was approximately 5 and 1/2 feet deep where two employees were working under an excavator bucket connecting a water line. Just after the employees were removed from the hazard at the request of the Compliance Officer, the wall of the excavation fissured and collapsed. No one was hurt, and the emphasis program on excavation and trenching demonstrated its value.

The blog post also includes striking photos from the sites and more information on excavation safety.

It’s rare to get such an immediate demonstration of why safety actions are important, but this is a good reminder of what OSHA’s fundamental mission is: saving workers’ lives. And if employers want to argue that this kind of regulatory activity is bad for business, maybe they should stop providing so many situations that demonstrate why OSHA is necessary.

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