The fatality rate for excavation work is 112 percent higher than the rate for general construction.

Danger in the Trenches: Excavation Shortcuts Cost Lives

May 23, 2016
A brief lapse in judgment or a shortcut to save a little time could result in tragedies that impact workers and their loved ones forever.

How many times do we see utility workers, sewer workers or construction workers working unprotected in trenches?

Trenches literally are filled with a variety of potential safety and environmental hazards. Cave-ins perhaps are 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 percent higher than the rate for general construction. Did you know that trenches 20 feet or more in depth must be designed by a registered professional engineer?

While those working on the front lines face dangers every day, it equally is important to take a top-down approach when it comes to dealing with the dangers of trenches:

  • 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?

  • Who is monitoring these projects and the employees involved, especially when we know that two workers are killed every month due to trench collapses? This is unacceptable and yet it continues.

Since the beginning of 2016, OSHA fines have ranged anywhere from $37,000 to well over $140,000 for trenching violations.
Trenches are nothing more than an open grave waiting to be filled, so why don’t we fill them with the appropriate equipment (trench boxes) instead of trapped bodies? Trench boxes, otherwise known as coffin boxes, sit idle and are not appropriately used, then tragedy strikes.

When Tragedy Strikes

Normally, workers don’t get a second chance like Eric Giguere received when he nearly was the victim of a tragic trenching incident. That’s why it’s so important to do it 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.

As Eric Giguere left for work on the morning of Oct. 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.

However, things changed quickly later that afternoon.

Working in a trench roughly six 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 force.

Immediately a sense of panic set in as he realized what had happened. Panic soon gave way to fear, as he realized the breaths he was taking were becoming more and more labored.

He thought that he was dying.

The other members of his five-man crew 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 further injuring Giguere.

Roughly 10 minutes later, he was uncovered … completely blue with no signs of life. As the ambulance was on its way, Giguere’s co-workers began CPR.

The ambulance crew continued CPR and eventually evacuated him by helicopter to Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, N.Y. There, doctors informed his wife, family, and friends who had gathered that despite their best efforts he might not live, and if he did he would likely 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 his 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. It was approximately 4 p.m – the same time Giguere and his new bride were supposed to be leaving for their honeymoon.

“It’s going to happen,” said Giguere. “I was a 27-year-old bullet-proof 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 short-cuts on the job.”

Mitigating Risks

Although trenching is an issue across the United States in all forms and industries, let’s explore how Arlington County, Va. addresses this critical issue.

Safety program coordinator Justin Corwin works with Virginia’s Department of Environmental Services.
Arlington County frequently uses trench boxes to ensure protection from cave-ins when the depth of the trench creates those hazards. The county uses backhoes that could dig into a collapsed trench, if needed. Avoiding these hazards is accomplished through the use of several tools and techniques, according to Corwin.

“When repairing water and sewer infrastructure, we use trench boxes, sloping of the sides of the trench and allowing multiple staff access to the trench to avoid lone working,” said Corwin. “If a job is outside of our current expertise, we have the option to bring in a more specialized organization to reduce risks to our employees. Non-routine and irregular situations greatly increase risks, so we take extra precautions during those events.”

Arlington County is a heavily developed urban area, which means all soil is considered previously disturbed. Soil may be saturated with water from leaking pipes. Because of this, Arlington County officials treat the soil as Class C and utilize the techniques stated above to meet OSHA standards.

People and culture are an important part of the equation when it comes dealing with the dangers of trenches.
Arlington County brings in a third party to train all of their crew leaders and supervisors on a routine basis. The training gives staff the formal knowledge to be considered the competent person on each and every job site. In addition, managers encourage field staff to take on leadership roles over time, setting specific hiring criteria, scheduling site inspections and participating in safety observation tours.

These activities provide field staff with the experience they need, on top of the Arlington County-required training to become a competent person.

As Eric Giguere knows all too well and has emphasized to workers just like himself, a brief lapse in judgment or taking a short cut “just this one time” could impact workers and their loved ones forever. 

Don’t allow workers to bet their lives to save a few minutes of time. Do the right thing. Their loved ones are depending on you and them to keep them safe.

David A. Ward, Sr. is the president and owner of Safety By Design Consultant Services, LLC, Workplace Safety Solution Professionals.

This article first appeared on and is used with permission.

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