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OSHA: Lack of Cave-In Protections Led to Trench Collapse

April 10, 2015
Two men who worked for Bednar Landscape died in October 2014 when a trench as deep as 13 feet collapsed around them.

Oscar Portillo and Selvin Zelaya were installing a French drain system for Bednar Landscape Services Inc. at the historic James Dixon Farm in Boonton, N.J., when the trench they were working in collapsed around them, killing them.

OSHA initiated an inspection on Oct. 1, 2014, and discovered that the trench the men had been working in was between 9 and 13 feet deep and had no cave-in protection. As a result, Bednar Landscape Services Inc. was cited with one alleged willful and nine alleged serious safety violations. OSHA has proposed penalties of $77,000

“One cubic yard of soil can weigh as much as a small car when a trench caves-in or collapses. Without the required protections, these men had no way to escape and their heartbroken families are left to make sense of a needless tragedy,” said Kris Hoffman, director of OSHA’s Parsippany Area Office. “Bednar management placed its employees in mortal danger by not using cave-in protections, and we believe these managers were plainly indifferent to the serious dangers their workers faced.”

The willful citation was due to the trench not being adequately sloped, protected by shields or shoring. A willful violation is one committed with intentional, knowing or voluntary disregard for the law’s requirement, or with plain indifference to worker safety and health.

The serious violations included not providing a ladder in the trench every 25 feet to allow safe exit, not having a competent person inspect the trench and failure to have utilities marked out, provide head protection or train workers on the hazards of the chemicals with which they worked. A serious violation occurs when there is substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known.

Bednar Landscape Services Inc. has 15 business days from receipt of their citations and proposed penalties to comply, request a conference with Hoffman or contest the findings before the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

“Sadly, this is not an isolated incident. The fact that two workers are killed each month in trench collapses underscores how important cave-in protections are,” said Robert Kulick, OSHA regional administrator in New York. “An unprotected trench can be a death trap and should never be entered. There are several ways to protect people who work in trenches, and trenches should be inspected at the start of each shift and as needed throughout the work day by trained professionals.”

OSHA requires that all trenches and excavation sites 5 feet or deeper be protected against sidewall collapses. Protection may be provided through shoring of trench walls, sloping of the soil at a shallow angle, or by using a protective trench box.

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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