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“A Trench is a Trench is a Trench”
An employee of a cemetery in Farmingdale, New York, was seriously injured on May 7, 2015, when the walls of the grave opening in which he was working collapsed and buried him up to his waist.
An inspection by the Long Island Area Office of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration found that the excavation and its support systems lacked adequate protection against cave-ins and the excavation had not been inspected to identify such deficiencies. Other hazards included damaged equipment and the placement of excavated soil on the edge of the unprotected trench. These conditions exposed employees to the hazards of cave-in, engulfment and struck-by injuries.
This worker literally came close to an early grave because the cemetery failed to provide proper excavation protections.
“This cave-in could have been prevented if proper and legally required trenching safety procedures had been followed by the employer,” said Anthony Ciuffo, OSHA’s Long island (NY) area director. “It is imperative that cemeteries ensure that workers at all its cemeteries are protected against cave-in hazards and ensure that an incident such as this does not happen again in the future.”
OSHA cited the company on Nov. 5, 2015, for two willful and three serious violations of workplace safety standards.
Roco Comments from Dennis O’Connell, Director of Training:
You may think of this is an unusual circumstance, a once in a lifetime event. Sorry, but you’re wrong. During my tenure as a rescuer in NYC, I responded to a number of these jobs, and they present some additional hazards that are not associated with most trench rescue jobs.
You can call it what you want, but a grave is a trench. And the location can make a big difference in terms of hazards presented. For example, I have a house in NY and one in Louisiana – in South Louisiana, we try to bury people above ground, if possible! However, in places like NY, cemetery space is so limited. It’s like high-rises in the city, our cemetery family plots bury multiple family members usually 3 on top of the other, which is referred to as a triple depth grave. This pushes the grave depth to about 8 feet for the first entombment.
So, no matter what you call it – a trench is a trench, and we need to follow OSHA 1926.651-652 requirements for protecting workers. Let’s look at some of the grave/trench basics before we move on to the specific grave hazard. If we dig an excavation that is longer than it is wide, it is a considered a trench – if it is 4’ or deeper, you need to have a ladder or other means of egress for workers; if it is 5’ or deeper, you need to install a protective system.
You must have a Competent Person, as defined by OSHA, to determine what system is adequate and that it is installed properly. They must also inspect the trench and surrounding area for hazards before workers can enter the trench. Of course, there’s a lot more to digging a trench and the responsibilities of the competent person but you get the idea.
Also, just because a trench is only 7’ long and 3’ wide, this does not change the rules or responsibilities associated with digging a trench. If you’re digging a trench, you need to have that competent person; you need to understand the requirements of 1926.651-652; and you need to know who will respond if you have a trench emergency. Keep in mind, most municipal departments, especially volunteer departments, do not have the training or equipment to respond to a trench collapse.
Ok, the added hazard to a grave collapse rescue is the headstone at the end of the grave – depending on the size, they can weigh over 1,000lbs. If it has fallen in the grave on top of the victim, then you will need to use technical rescue techniques and equipment to lift and free the victim. If it is still on the edge, you will need to support, stabilize or remove it before rescuers can work under it. So, even an innocent grave, can be the scene of a complicated technical trench rescue.
Bottom line… if you are digging trenches for whatever reason, or you have contractors digging trenches on your property, you need to be aware of the requirements of 1926.651-652, have a “competent person,” and identify who you are going to call if a collapse happens.
FYI, you need to have 2.9 feet of soil above the casket top. Some say that it’s a public health law. Between you and me, I think it’s to keep Zombies from escaping!
Here is an OSHA fact sheet to help you better understand some of the requirements. OSHA Fact Sheet - Trenching and Excavation Safety
OSHA reports that two workers are killed every month in trench collapses. Just recently, OSHA cited two contractors following a trench collapse that buried 22-year-old laborer Carlos Moncayo beneath tons of soil and debris at a Manhattan construction site. OSHA found that Moncayo's death could have been prevented if the general contractor and subcontractor had provided cave-in protection for the trench or braced an adjacent section of undermined and unsupported sidewalk. In connection with Moncayo's death, officials from both companies were indicted for manslaughter and other charges in the New York State Supreme Court on Aug. 5.
"Managers from these companies were aware of these deadly hazards and did not remove employees from the trench, even after warnings from project safety officials."
OSHA issued each employer two citations for willful violations of workplace safety standards on Oct. 5. Proposed fines total $280,000 – $140,000 for each company – the maximum allowable fines under the Occupational Safety and Health Act. A willful violation is committed with intentional, knowing or voluntary disregard for the law's requirements, or with plain indifference to worker safety and health.
"Carlos Moncayo was a person, not a statistic. His death was completely avoidable. Had the trench been guarded properly against collapse, he would not have died in the cave-in. This unconscionable behavior needlessly and shamefully cost a man his life."Quotes by Kay Gee, OSHA Area Director-Manhattan
Updated OSHA guide on Trenching and Excavation Safety
Trench and excavation work are among the most hazardous operations in construction. Because one cubic yard of soil can weigh as much as a car, an unprotected trench can be an early grave. OSHA's updated guide to Trenching and Excavation Safety highlights key elements of the applicable workplace standards and describes safe practices that employers can follow to protect workers from cave-ins and other hazards. A new section in the updated guide addresses safety factors that an employer should consider when bidding on a job. Expanded sections describe maintaining materials and equipment used for worker protection systems as well as additional hazards associated with excavations.
Remember, an unprotected trench can become an early grave. Learn how to keep workers safe. Download these OSHA Guides for details.
One minute a worker was working in the 8-foot trench below ground. The next, he was being buried in it. His co-workers came to his rescue, digging him out with their bare hands. Moments after they pulled the injured man to safety, the unprotected trench collapsed again. His injuries were serious and led to his hospitalization.
What’s more, the man's Houston-area employer knew the Richmond, Texas, excavation site was dangerous, but failed to protect its workers.
OSHA has since cited the company for 16 safety violations, including six egregious willful violations for failing to protect workers inside an excavation from a cave-in. The company faces penalties totaling $423,900.
"For more than 2,500 years, man has known how to prevent deadly trench collapses. It is absolutely unacceptable that employers continue to endanger the lives of workers in trenches," said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels. In addition to the willful violations, the company was cited for nine serious violations, including failing to remove debris from the edge of the excavation. The company also did not provide a safe means to get in and out of the excavation for workers or conduct atmospheric testing inside excavations after a sewer leak.
"Trench cave-ins are preventable," said John Hermanson, OSHA's regional administrator in Dallas. "There are long-established, basic precautions. They're not new, and they're not secret. This company knew its trenches weren't safe, but still put its workers in harm's way."
OSHA has also placed the company in its Severe Violator Enforcement Program. The program concentrates resources on inspecting employers who have demonstrated indifference towards creating a safe and healthy workplace by committing willful or repeated violations, and/or failing to abate known hazards. It also mandates follow-up inspections to ensure compliance with the law.
Here’s another reminder of how quickly a trench can turn deadly and how important it is to be prepared. Is your rescue team prepared for such an incident?
When firefighters arrived at the scene of a construction trench collapse near Covington (Louisiana) back in May, they could see two pairs of feet sticking out of the wet, sandy clay at the bottom of the 10-foot-deep trench. But only one voice was calling for help.
The frantic rescue effort that followed, interrupted by safety concerns and bad weather, would bring one man safely to the surface. His co-worker did not survive.
Firefighters immediately jumped in and began trying to dig the men out from nearly a foot of dirt that had tumbled down on top of them from the sides of the trench. But as the operation dragged on, they realized that being in the trench could compound the danger. The depth of the hole combined with the sandy clay made for a perilous work situation. Moreover, huge piles of excavated dirt loomed over the side of the trench, adding to fears of another collapse.
The weather didn’t help. During the rescue, a rainstorm drenched the area and then was replaced by baking sun.
To lower the risk, firefighters had to delay rescue efforts while others brought in sheets of plywood to reinforce the sides of the trench. A ladder was laid across the top and another was lowered to the bottom. Firemen tossed water down to their comrades, and a large vacuum truck was brought in to suction out debris.
Two hours after the firefighters arrived, the surviving worker — stripped of his clothes except for a pair of blue and red striped shorts — was placed into a rescue basket and lifted slowly to the lip of the trench. He was immediately tended to by emergency medical technicians, who transferred him to a stretcher.
The injured worker, who has not been named, was alert throughout the rescue and was able to speak with the men working to free him, officials said.
But there were fears that his medical condition could deteriorate quickly after he was pulled from the dirt. The weight of the soil could have been acting like a “big tourniquet,” said St. Tammany Coroner Charles Preston, an emergency physician. In that type of situation, he said, when the pressure caused by a heavy weight is removed, the flow of blood throughout an injured body can cause severe problems.
In this case, however, Preston said the worker was doing as well as could be expected, adding that his belly was soft, which indicated that the weight of the earth had not prevented his blood from flowing while he was buried.
Once the worker was taken away, the operation turned from rescue to recovery. The body of a 24-year-old was removed about 5 p.m., after more than four hours of being buried in the trench.
Sheriff Jack Strain, briefing reporters after the first worker had been removed, said his office would investigate whether all proper safety protocols had been followed at the site. Strain noted the presence of three trench boxes — large metal frames with two panel sides connected by thick bars — stacked just feet from where the collapse occurred but said there were none at the cave-in site itself.
“I don’t know why those weren’t in the ground, but those things will be looked into,” Strain said. State agencies may also investigate the incident, he said.
(Excerpts, photos and videos from a story in The New Orleans Advocate by Faimon A. Roberts III - click to read full story)
Preparation is Key
Is your agency or rescue team prepared for this type of incident? Who will be responsible for performing the rescue, and how quickly can they respond? Do they have the proper equipment and training to do the job while protecting themselves?
Also, do you have the availability of advanced life support personnel who can respond to the scene? Injuries sustained from trench incidents can be more severe (internal) than just bruising and broken bones. Crush Syndrome/Compartmentalization Syndrome can kill a “rescued” victim!
Keep in mind, someone was responsible for acting as the Competent Person at this site, or at least, should have been. Are your supervisors properly trained to identify potential trench hazards? If you use contractors, do you assume they have the proper training and equipment while they are working on your site?
Don’t underestimate the dangers of trench work – or the dangers posed to emergency response personnel. Make sure your people are prepared! Learn the latest trench safety and rescue techniques at our upcoming Trench Rescue Course at the Roco Training Center, September 9-11, 2015.
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