Safety: Excavation and Trenching Dangers

Nov. 3, 2016

Workplace safety solution professionals: How many times do we see excavation and sewer workers working unprotected in trenches? Trenches are literally filled with a variety of potential safety and environmental hazards. Cave-ins are perhaps the most feared trenching hazard as one cubic yard of soil can weigh as much as a car. Asphyxiation due to lack of oxygen in a confined space is a major risk. So are inhalation of toxic fumes and drowning. The fatality rate for excavation work is 112% higher than the rate for general construction.

Did you know that trenches 20 feet, or more, in depth need to be designed by a registered professional engineer? While those working on the front lines face dangers every day, it’s equally important to take a top down approach when it comes to dealing with the dangers of trenches.

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Does management embrace doing the right thing each and every time? Do employees watch out for one another, peer to peer safety?

Does productivity outweigh safety? When no one is watching, do employees do the right thing each and every time?

Another question: Who is monitoring these projects and the employees involved—especially, when it has been determined that two workers are killed every month due to trench collapses? This is unacceptable and yet it continues.

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Since the beginning of 2016 OSHA fines range anywhere from $37,000 to well over $140,000 for trenching violations.

Trenches are nothing more than an open grave waiting to be filled. Why don’t we fill them with the appropriate equipment (trench boxes) instead of bodies that are trapped? Trench boxes otherwise known as coffin boxes sit idle and are not appropriately used—then tragedy strikes.

As Eric Giguere left for work on the morning of October 4, 2002, little was different in his daily routine other than the wedding ring he had just started wearing.

In his position as a laborer, he was tasked with installing water lines in a rural setting. Though the work was difficult, it gave him a sense of accomplishment and well being as he knew he would be able to provide well for his new family. At the age of 27, Giguere felt as though his hard work was well rewarded with a $20-per-hour wage.

However, things changed quickly later that afternoon.

Working in a trench roughly 6 feet deep, he crouched down near the pipe his crew had been laying. Without warning, the sides of the trench collapsed, completely engulfing him with a crushing sensation. Immediately, a sense of panic set in as he fully realized what had happened. Panic soon gave way to fear, as he realized the breaths he was taking were becoming more labored. Fear soon subsided and was replaced with the fact that he was dying.

The remainder of the five-man crew onsite immediately had to make difficult decisions when the trench collapsed. His backhoe operator took the top 2 feet of soil off immediately, but left the rest of the digging to be performed by hand out of fear of injuring Giguere further.

Roughly 10 minutes later, he was uncovered, completely blue with no signs of life. As the ambulance was on its way, Giguere’s coworkers began performing CPR on him.

The ambulance crew arrived and continued CPR, eventually evacuating him by helicopter to Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, NY. There, doctors informed Giguere’s wife, family, and friends who had gathered that despite their best efforts he might not live, and if he did it was likely he’d have severe brain damage.

One-by-one, loved ones filed into his hospital room to pay what they thought would be their last respects. As family members comforted Giguere’s wife, a delivery was being made to the now vacant accident site. The contractor he was employed by was dropping off a trench box that was not previously available.

This was all happening at approximately 4 p.m.—the time when Giguere and his wife were supposed to have been leaving for their honeymoon.

Thankfully, Giguere survived and lived to talk about the incident. “It’s going to happen,” he says. “I was a 27-year-old bulletproof kid when it happened to me, and I was just trying to get my job done. My big message is this: we can’t get used to taking shortcuts on the job.” (His interview video is available here.)

Normally, you don’t get a second chance like this when it comes to trenching, which is why it’s important to do things right the first time. Employers need to be reminded they are required to provide a workplace free of recognized hazards that may cause injury or death.

How many more tragic events happen like this daily? Safety professional Rick Wakefield, CSMP, has worked approximately 126 miles of 85-inch pipeline for the for the city of San Francisco. He believes that competent training is of the utmost importance.

“Continued training at weekly safety meetings is important. Remember that 6-foot or deeper—I go with 4-foot—trench boxes are required before anybody steps in the trench. This needs to be monitored at all times. Our crews conducted a Job Safety Analysis every morning before work. We discussed what the goals were for that day, who was going to do what job, and to include a spotter who was responsible for watching the excavator versus people in and around the trenches. If anything appeared unsafe or a “near miss” was observed, we gave the power to any employee to stop the job,” he says.

“Because laying pipe and trenching can be monotonous, it is important that the crew never becomes complacent,” says Wakefield. “At lunch, we discussed our particular jobs, progress, questions about the project, and possibly even ‘change up’ positions. This would challenge the brain and keep monotony away. Over all, continued open communication is very important.”

As Giguere knows all too well and has emphasized to workers just like himself, a brief lapse in judgement or taking a shortcut just this one time could impact you and your loved ones forever. Don’t bet your life to save a few minutes of time. Do the right thing. Your loved ones are depending on you.