Construction Job Site Safety: Fear the Fine

March 23, 2017

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the March/April 2015 edition of Grading & Excavation Contractor.

No contractor wants to make headlines because of a trench collapse. When a collapse results in the death of a laborer? That’s tragic, and the resulting fines and lawsuits could be enough to put even large contractors out of business.

But it doesn’t take a fatality for contractors to suffer a serious hit on their bottom lines. Those contractors who don’t take the proper safety precautions when tackling underground work can get hit with hundreds of thousands of dollars of fines for violating federal safety rules.

Take the case of excavating company Mark Mashuda Excavating in Evans City, PA. The company was fined $147,000 in October 2015 as the result of an accident at a work site last year. An employee was trapped 10 feet in the ground after a trench collapse in late March while the excavation company was installing sanitary sewer lines. It took rescue personnel three hours to dig the man out. Fortunately, the man, though he was trapped waist-deep, was not seriously injured.

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That didn’t stop OSHA from issuing three citations against the company. OSHA says that two of the citations were for willful violations.

“This trench collapse never should have happened,” says Christopher Robinson, director of OSHA’s Pittsburgh office in a press release. “It is completely inexcusable for an excavation contractor not to provide cave-in protection for all employees working in trenches.”

Tom Hartman, senior vice president of strategic alliances with National Trench Safety LLC in Houston, TX, says that he’s not surprised by the large fines, or by any of the hefty punishments that contractors face when OSHA rules that the trenches they dig pose a safety risk to their workers.

He’s also not surprised that so many contractors today are investing more time in making sure that their underground work sites are safe. Contractors don’t want to see cave-ins at their sites. And they definitely don’t want any serious injuries on these sites.

They don’t want to suffer heavy fines, either, says Hartman. And today it’s more difficult for contractors who do violate federal safety measures to escape the notice of OSHA, he says.

“You have to understand the nature of the trenching and excavation industry,” says Hartman. “Workers are out in the open, quite often in public spaces. They are easy pickings. When you are a private industry, operating a plant or a business, the OSHA people have to knock on your front gate and ask to come in. When you are laying pipe in the middle of the street, they can drive by and walk right up.”

This increased scrutiny, and the intense focus on safety that the best contractors have today, is actually a good thing for companies that specialize in underground work, says Hartman.

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“The fines and potential risks of not being aware of worker safety are so high, they can put you out of business,” says Hartman. “It’s the rare contractors who haven’t taken it upon themselves to learn the regulations. A willful violation is the worst type. That’s a contractor who knows of a danger and chooses to ignore it. That can’t happen. Working safe is no longer just an option. It is a requirement. Trench work can be very dangerous work, but it doesn’t have to be, not for contractors who follow the safety requirements.”

Want to protect your company from fines? Want to keep your workers as safe as possible? Then it’s time to focus intently on trench safety. If you don’t, you could be putting your company and your employees at risk.