On Feb. 8, a Southern California man in his early 30s was working to locate a sewer line when the 8-foot-deep by 2-foot-wide trench caved in and buried him in soil up to his shoulders. This 10-year construction veteran was pronounced dead at the scene. The rescue effort had become a recovery effort.
The soil, which weighed up to 150 pounds per cubic foot, likely buried this laborer in such a way to lead to a fast death. However, this is little consolation for such a tragic, preventable event.
If this were a report of a young man dying on the front lines of war defending his country, one might see some sense in his untimely death. Delivering this heartbreaking news to a mother or wife when the deceased loved one died for a greater cause carries a banner of purpose. But construction work isn’t a cause worth dying for.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, construction fatalities declined by 16 percent from 2008 to 2009 (from 726 fatalities in 2008 to 607 in 2009). If that same percentage reflected a revenue increase or unemployment decrease, it would be positive. But when we are speaking of occupational fatalities, I find these totals to be unacceptable. I find the loss of even one life unacceptable.
We must begin to view each of these fatalities as a face with a family rather than a statistic to be found on a Web site and improved upon for the sake of lower insurance premiums. This construction laborer was left working alone (it is still unclear if there was any form of cave-in protection in the trench) in an 8-foot deep trench while the remainder of his crew worked at another location. This lack of oversight demonstrates that some companies still don’t get it.
“It” is simple – life is important and the work is dangerous. Does that fact that it is dangerous mean it cannot or should not be done? Absolutely not. Rather, it means that those in charge must begin to match their mitigation measures with the level of danger inherent with the work.
The work will not get less dangerous. In fact, the argument could be made that with the sheer size and speed in which construction projects are evolving, the work may get even more dangerous. To counter this we must get better, and view each fatality as one too many.
Life is Precious
I realize it every time I walk in my front door and am greeted by my children, or when I watch the sun set on a lazy West Coast summer day: Life is precious and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. There is nothing like it. It is irreplaceable, incomparable and incomprehensibly beautiful.
It is only when this message – that life’s priceless beauty belongs to all – is truly absorbed by top levels of management will America’s employees be protected. When everyone pitches in to make American workers go home, occupational fatalities will become the exception rather than the rule.
Jason Townsell, a student working toward a bachelor’s of science in occupational health and safety at Columbia Southern University, was recently named the first Future Leader in EHS. He received a $5,000 scholarship and access to PureSafety’s safety and health software and information solutions. The judges selected Townsell based on his work and life experience, community outreach efforts, academic performance, his interest in teaching and mentoring EHS students and more. Townsell is a contributing blogger for EHS Today.