Recently, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited an excavation and utilities contractor in Massachusetts for willful and serious violations of the excavation safety standards at a work site. Excavations are any man-made cuts or depressions into the earth’s surface, including trenches. A trench is a narrow excavation made below the earth’s surface. Usually depth is greater than width, but width at the bottom is not more than 15 ft. It is important to remember that soil is heavy; OSHA has noted that 1 cubic yard of soil can weigh as much as a car does.
The citation was for $144,400 in proposed fines following an inspection after an anonymous complaint. Willful and serious violations are accompanied by hefty penalties because they are imposed when an employer knowingly refuses to comply with safeguards that are required with particular work. Willful violations are committed with “intentional, knowing or voluntary disregard” or indifference to its workers’ safety. Serious violations are committed where an employer knew or should have known of a hazard that could lead to death or a serious injury.
Excavation work is very dangerous. OSHA has reported that two workers are killed during excavation work, on average, each month. Workers that are not adequately protected can be crushed under soil and debris without any escape. In this case, workers were installing water mains in a trench 6 feet and 8 inches deep. There was no cave-in protection and there was no ladder by which the workers could leave if a cave-in started. Debris would fall and accumulate over the trench creating a potential hazard. The willful citations were given because the company had previously been cited at a New Hampshire work site.
29 CFR 1926.651 and 1926.652 provide requirements that excavating employers should follow in order to avoid trench collapse. What are the requirements for safety at excavation sites? Among other things OSHA requires all trenches that are more than 5 feet deep be protected against a side wall collapse and include some means of escape from collapse. Some ways to achieve protection are by (1) benching (forming horizontal levels or steps in Type A or B soil), (2) shoring the trench walls with aluminum hydraulic supports to prevent soil movement, (3) sloping the soil at an angle inclined away from the excavation, or (4) using shielding such as a trench box or other support.
Employers should make sure that excavated soils (also known as spoils) are at least two feet from the edge of a trench’s opening. Trenches must be meticulously examined by a competent person after a rainstorm or any other event that could change the nature of the soil inside the trench. Not every employee understands the ramifications of improperly protected workers or what the soil should be like when conducting trench excavations.
If you believe the excavation conditions at your workplace present a hazard, you should bring it to your employer’s (or OSHA’s) attention. Employers are not permitted to retaliate against you for reporting safety violations.
If you are hurt on the job, you may be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. An experienced Massachusetts workers’ compensation attorney can evaluate whether you have a sound claim and fight to make sure that your employer and its insurer follow the rules. Contact us by calling 800-367-0871 or using our online contact form.