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Danger Uncovered

Danger Uncovered

Are shorter schedules and tighter budgets putting electrical workers at risk in the trenches?

On May 6, utility subcontractor Robert Harrell, the 34-year-old VP of electrical contracting firm Harrell & Associates, Fort Worth, Texas, was attempting to connect power to a water tower under construction in Arlington, Texas, when the wall of the 10-ft to 15-ft-deep trench in which he was working collapsed, partially covering his body in mud and killing him. Because the ground was saturated from recent rains, workers had to set up new support walls in the trench as they extricated Harrell's body, which was recovered more than five hours after the initial cave-in. Although the circumstances regarding Harrell's death currently are under investigation by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Washington, D.C., local Texas officials surmise a lack of proper cave-in protections may have led to the collapse.

The fatality rate for excavation work is 112% higher than the rate for general construction, according to OSHA. Unfortunately, as the workers on the water tower site experienced that day, a trench cave-in can become deadly in mere seconds. A victim does not need to be completely covered in soil to die; a partial covering of soil creates enough pressure to asphyxiate a worker. Most victims experience mechanical asphyxia, in which the weight of the dirt — about 3,000 lb per cu yd — compresses the chest. In addition, many workers rescued from the trench alive may eventually die from their injuries, experiencing “compartment syndrome,” in which necrosis, especially of the leg muscles, causes lactic acid to build up in the body and changes the blood's pH level.

Furthermore, trench work holds the potential for other fatal hazards, such as asphyxiation due to lack of oxygen in a confined space, inhalation of toxic fumes, drowning, and electrocution or explosions from contact with underground utilities.

“Often, the workers who do get injured or killed in trenches are not aware of the dangers and are placed in dangerous situations by their employers who should know better,” says Michael Hein, professor, Department of Building Science, Auburn University, Auburn, Ala., and creator of the online trench training program, (For more online trench safety resources, see Online Trench Safety Resources). “Anybody who's around construction, especially underground construction, should be able to recognize the tremendous forces that are there and the ways of protecting workers who go down into these trenches. This includes electrical contractors who do any kind of work underground, unless they're using trench-less technology to install cables and conduits.”

Lack of a protective system, failure to inspect trench and protective systems, unsafe spoil-pile placement, and unsafe access or egress cause the most trenching and excavation incidents. To address these hazards, OSHA issued its excavation standard, OSHA 29 CFR, Part 1926, Subpart P, in 1990. “Some of the techniques and products have changed since then but not significantly,” says David Dow, president of Trench Safety, a Memphis, Tenn.-based firm that offers competent person training and protective systems rentals. “It's actually been pretty static during that period.”

Yet, fatalities and injuries related to trenches have not experienced a significant decrease in the two decades since its release. Harrell's death is among approximately two dozen fatalities caused by trench collapses nationwide since January 2008, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Each year, there are more than 30 trench-related fatalities, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). An additional 1,000 trench cave-ins per year cause nonfatal, lost-time injuries.

Slap on the wrist

A 2006 report published by the Center to Protect Workers' Rights (CPWR), Silver Spring, Md., reveals the most common barriers to the adoption of the OSHA trench-safety standard (Barriers to Safe Trench Work on page C20), as explained to the report's authors in interviews with people associated with excavation work and trenching safety and stakeholders in the California trenching/excavation industry. Insufficient enforcement is among the cited impediments. Based on respondents' opinion, according to the report, “Strategies to Prevent Trenching-Related Injuries and Deaths,” the perception of the OSHA standard is that it is more of a guideline than an actual law. “OSHA is a minimum,” says Dan Lee, managing director of education and training for the Arkansas chapter of the Associated General Contractors (AGC), Little Rock, Ark. “Most everybody follows the OSHA standard because it makes things safer, and the agency will fine you if it finds a problem. But there are some contractors that don't because nobody forces them to.”

In 2004, OSHA inspected more than 2,000 trench sites, only one-third of which were supervised by an experienced OSHA-required competent person. Of the inspections prompted by a trench accident that year, 88% lacked a protective system. In response, the agency wrote more than 4,000 citations and imposed almost $8 million in penalties. “Generally, because it's considered hazardous work, trenching violations are considered to be serious, resulting in larger fines,” Dow says. “OSHA issues some five- and six-figure citations, even when there hasn't even been an injury on a job site, particularly if the contractor has had a problem in the past. If a contractor has a good safety program and it's just an oversight or there's been a mistake, generally OSHA's fairly lenient the first time.”

In a recent incident involving the asphyxiation death of Martin Samaniego, 37, who was installing an underground power line when the 11-ft-deep trench in which he was working in Banning, Calif., collapsed, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) determined that the contractor employer Pouk & Steinle, Riverside, Calif., did not take measures that could have prevented the trench from collapsing. As a result, the agency issued five citations, each carrying a fine totaling $49,500.

Still, the average OSHA penalty for serious violations is $900, and when compared with the $25,000 fines levied per violation per day for an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Clean Water Act violation, it seems like small change. This dampens the deterrent effect, according to Celeste Monforton, chairwoman of the Occupational Health & Safety Section of the American Public Health Association, as reported by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The penalties authorized by Congress essentially bind OSHA's authority, said Monforton.

According to the CPWR report, many in the construction industry are in favor of increasing OSHA fines in order to demonstrate the grave nature of violations and to act as a catalyst to improve safety practices. “A substantial initial fine would keep employers from becoming repeat offenders,” said one respondent. In addition, respondents suggested increasing enforcement of the OSHA multi-employer citation policy as a way to get general contractors more involved in day-to-day site safety management; mandating that competent-person trainers be certified, for instance, by a state agency; and linking revocation of contractor licenses to OSHA trenching violations.

Stricter standards

The OSHA standard can seem quite flexible, for example, allowing contractors substantial leeway on the types of trench protection they can use (Photo 1 on page C16). Therefore, some states have stricter guidelines than the federal rules. Designated state agencies in 20 states overrule OSHA in setting and enforcing safety regulations. “OSHA is a safety net that spreads everywhere with the possible exception of university campuses,” Hein says. “But some states' jurisdictions supersede OSHA's.”

For example, Connecticut and Massachusetts require all employees working on government-contracted underground construction projects to complete OSHA's 10-hr training program for competent persons. Texas and Washington have made protective systems a bid item per linear foot in all public-works project bids. In California, every employer has a legal obligation to provide and maintain a safe and healthy workplace for employees, according to the California Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1973. Therefore, the state's regulations for excavation and trench work are quite specific. Every time a worker enters an excavation 5 ft deep or deeper, the employer companies need to obtain a permit from the Department of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH), which requires employers to competently conduct daily inspections of the trench and safety systems, including the stability of the soil and changing weather patterns. Another preventive step includes not parking heavy vehicles next to the trench.

In the report on the Pouk & Steinle incident, Cal/OSHA reveals that Pouk & Steinle failed to inspect the trench after it was observed that the face of the trench was sloughing off. The company, according to the report, did not remove employees from the trench until precautionary measures could be taken, nor did it properly support the trench. Mark Hanson, a spokesman for Pouk & Steinle, said at least three crew members working in the trench that morning were trained in such work. He said he did not know if Samaniego had received the training. But the state's safety regulations do not require everyone on the crew to be trained.

Individual contractors sometimes mandate requirements more restrictive than OSHA or state standards. For example, industrial electrical contractor Koontz Electric Co., Morrilton, Ark., has received recognition for its safety and training programs, including being named an Accredited Quality Contractor by the Associated Builders and Contractors, Arlington, Va. The company employs a full-time safety director, Gary Massey, who implements a safety rewards program and conducts job audits and weekly site safety meetings. The company has ushered 25 of its 120 employees through competent-person training. However, all employees that work in the trenches also have some training. “Everyone that is in the trench has to have some training, according to the way I read it,” Massey says. “Most of the time, anybody that goes in the trench goes through competent-person training. We take the superintendents, foremen, and lead people through it first, and then journeymen electricians after that. We also send them to a confined space class.”

The most common significant difference between companies that go beyond the OSHA standard, according to Dow, is the depth of trench requiring protective systems. “Under the federal standard, the magic number is 5 ft,” Dow explains. “If the trench is deeper than 5 ft, it has to be sloped, shored, or shielded. But if there is a potential for a cave-in, even at 3 ft, you have to slope, shore, or shield. A lot of that decision-making is left up to the competent person on the job site. But if you're 5 ft or deeper, according to the federal law, you've got to provide protection. In some of the chemical plants — and in some areas of the country — they require contractors or employers to slope, shore, or shield at a depth of 4 ft.”

Shallow grave

Cost and time are another major barrier to implementing trench safety precautions, according to the CPWR report. “It seems that lots of people take shortcuts, and it's easy to do,” says Hein. “It's expensive to do some of these protective measures that OSHA requires. A lot of people cut corners and often get caught in a trench.”

Contractors are under pressure to meet increasingly shorter time schedules and tighter budgets. Sometimes, this results in cuts in safety budgets, particularly where the dangers are underestimated, such as in shallower trenches. “Some people think, “Well it's only 3 ft or 4 ft deep — I can get out of there if I have to,'” Lee says. “Well, maybe you can, and maybe you can't, depending on the conditions.”

Worker deaths can occur in unprotected trenches that are as shallow as 4 ft, especially when proper procedures for storage of the spoil (the excavated material) are not followed. “If you pile spoil right on the side of the trench, what started out to be 4 ft deep may get to be 8 ft or 10 ft deep,” Dow says. “Plus, the weight of all that dirt on the side of the excavation might actually trigger a cave-in, and then all that additional material ultimately comes into the trench.”

Unsurprisingly, 79% of trench-related deaths occur in trenches ranging from 5 ft to 15 ft in depth, according to Dow, which comprises the depth of the majority of trenches used for utility projects. At the shallow end, companies and workers are also more likely to overlook the danger. “They get careless in a 5-ft-deep trench,” Dow explains. “But 3,000 lb per cu yd is a lot of weight. If you're in a 4-ft to 5-ft-deep trench, and that wall breaks off, you've got a problem.”

The physical stance electrical work requires of workers in trenches also puts them at a greater risk for fatality or injury, even in shallow trenches. “The thinking is that in a shallower trench more of your body would be out of that trench,” Dow says. “But if you think about it, the workers putting in a duct bank with conduits have to get spacers in place and bind the conduit, so they're going to spend a whole bunch of their time leaning over. Even in a 4-ft-deep trench, they're going to be relatively low in the trench. If just a part of the face of the trench breaks off, even just a couple of cubic feet of dirt, you could be dealing with a significant amount of weight.”

To save money and time, there are better and safer ways to implement trench protective systems rather than foregoing them altogether. For instance, firms can use the leeway provided by the OSHA standard to determine the best system for the type of trench needed for the project.

The three basic ways of protecting people in a trench are by sloping, shoring, or providing a barrier (or box) that protects the worker in event of a cave-in. Shielding is more cost-effective than sloping, according to United Rentals, Greenwich, Conn. In addition, protective techniques can be tailored for the type of work being performed in the trench. “For different companies, plumbing versus electrical versus utility, some of the techniques would be different,” says Dow. “With electrical contractors in general, you probably see more sloping back and greater use of things like vertical shores, vertical hydraulic shoring, or maybe aluminum trench shields (Photo 2). Most electrical contractors would be using a rubber tire-type loader or even a mini excavator to dig the trench.”

Depending on how much trench work a firm performs, they may want to buy their own equipment. For those that perform less trench work, equipment rental is available. “We rent or lease the equipment for trench safety,” Massey says. “For confined space work, we have our own gas monitors.”

Failure to provide trench safety systems reaches beyond federal and state OSHA fines and ultimately costs more than the money saved by non-compliance. Firms can be faced with losses in time and schedule through additional inspections, shutdowns, repairs, workers' downtime for recovery, and employee replacement. Contracting firms working on projects with multiple safety violations can face other penalties. Those involved in particularly egregious cases of lack of protection — particularly in cases where there is a history of violations — have been brought up on criminal charges. “You do see some situations now where the justice department gets involved,” Dow says. “There can be criminal charges.”

For instance, a 2006 trench fatality in Gulfport, Miss., resulted in an OSHA fine totaling $78,100. In addition, the Department of Justice considered pressing charges. The case ultimately reached a plea agreement, which included acknowledgement that the contractor “demonstrated recognition and affirmative acceptance for its criminal conduct.” An additional $210,000 fine, community service requirements, and reporting requirements were part of the deal. If the contractor fails to abide by the terms of the agreement, the Justice Department can pursue additional penalties, possibly even jail time.

However, third-party civil suits instigated by the victims' families are more common than criminal charges. In addition to the fines levied against Pouk & Steinle, the company may find itself in a third-party lawsuit with the victim's family, who also has rights to workers' compensation benefits. “The better contractors understand that a good training program is going to pay dividends in the long run, especially if they can keep somebody from getting hurt,” says Lee. “It's going to save them a lawsuit down the road. You hate to talk about it in terms of dollars, but that's always what it comes back to.”

Sidebar: Online Trench Safety Resources

Source: Hard Hat News,

Sidebar: Barriers to Safe Trench Work

The 2006 report, “Strategies to Prevent Trenching-Related Injuries and Deaths,” published by the Center to Protect Workers' Rights (CPWR), Silver Spring, Md., reveals the most common barriers to the adoption of the OSHA trench-safety standard, as reported to the authors in interviews with people associated with excavation work and trenching safety and stakeholders in the California trenching/excavation industry. Based on respondents' opinion, following are the most common barriers to adoption of the standard:

  • Attitude — Survey respondents revealed a “casual attitude” toward safety, on the part of both employers and workers, as one of the main barriers to ensuring safe trench work, says the CPWR. In addition, many workers believe that either a cave-in will not happen to them or that they can outrun a cave-in.

  • Lack of training — Untrained, poorly trained, or inexperienced competent persons and workers are unable to recognize hazards and therefore do not know how to work safely in a trench, reads the report. In addition, respondents, including training providers and excavation company representatives, cited an urgent need to provide more safety training in Spanish.

  • Insufficient enforcement — There was general agreement among those interviewed that OSHA enforcement is not adequate to motivate all employers to follow safe trenching practices. Many of the stakeholders interviewed said that they believed the OSHA excavation standard contained all of the elements necessary to ensure protection of trenching workers, but that OSHA needs to increase enforcement of the standard proactively, for instance, through targeted inspections.

  • Costs — Many contractors believe that the costs of trench protective equipment, as well as its transportation, installation, and storage, are excessive and affect company profits. The pressure on contractors to make competitive bids means they may cut corners on safety-related expenditures.

To read the full report, download a copy from the CPWR Web site at

Source: The Center to Protect Workers' Rights (CPWR), “Strategies to Prevent Trenching-Related Injuries and Deaths”

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