Rescue personnel on scene of a Jan. 8 trench collapse...

Rescue personnel on scene of a Jan. 8 trench collapse on Piper Lane in St. James, where a worker was trapped in a trench between 10-20 feet deep. Credit: James Carbone

This guest essay reflects the views of Kevin Sullivan, Occupational Safety and Health Administration area director in Westbury.

Summer is approaching and with it comes all the great things we love about the warm weather here on Long Island. Many of us remember visits to the beach as kids or as adults with our own families. We have fond memories of digging holes in the sand deep enough to partially cover ourselves and each other in soft soil.

Now imagine your child — or anyone, for that matter — digging a hole in the sand deep enough to stand in. The thought probably terrifies you because you know that soft sand is unstable and could collapse without warning.

Employers and supervisors who assign and oversee excavation and trenching work all over Long Island should feel the same way about their workers who enter excavations.

The fact is that almost all soil on Long Island is in the soft and unstable category and can shift and collapse without warning. While the soil farther inland from our beaches may not be quite as sandy, it is still inherently unstable and therefore dangerous.

The risks of excavation and trenching work are well known. One cubic yard of dirt can weigh 3,000 pounds. Several cubic yards of soil can shift and collapse without warning into an unprotected trench in seconds. If this happens when a worker is in the trench, the worker will be buried and very quickly crushed or suffocated.

When first responders arrive to attempt to rescue workers in a collapsed trench, they must first stabilize the soil before they can begin the rescue to avoid another collapse that could put more people in jeopardy. This takes time — time that the trapped worker does not have.

Tragically, 39 workers died across the country while conducting excavation and trenching work in 2022. From 2016 through 2021, the annual average of worker fatalities in trench collapses was 20.

On Long Island, four workers have been killed over the last four years when excavations they were working in collapsed.

The increased number of fatalities from trench collapses was so dramatic and alarming in the first half of 2022 that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced enhanced enforcement and additional oversight that July. Of course, this is not a new or emerging occupational health hazard; OSHA has had a trenching and excavation training course in place since 2018.

This workplace hazard and ways to prevent fatalities are well known. Yet OSHA inspectors too frequently see excavation operations, like waterproofing foundations and installing septic and water management systems, without cave-in protections in place. Every excavation operation that is below ground at a depth of 5 feet or more requires protections from cave-ins. It is important that all employers and supervisors take a step back, evaluate the hazards, and take necessary steps to protect workers before allowing them to enter any excavation site.

We encourage every employer to hold safety stand down events and discuss the hazards of excavation and trenching work and ways to protect each other from those hazards. Visit www.osha.gov/trenching-excavation for more information about how to protect workers. OSHA provides many free resources at that site to help.

My hope is that all employers take a moment to imagine their child or another loved one standing in a trench or excavation site. Then, think about the steps you would take to protect that loved one. In doing this, you will help prevent needless, preventable excavation-related deaths across Long Island.

 

n THIS GUEST ESSAY reflects the views of Kevin Sullivan, Occupational

Safety and Health Administration

area director in Westbury.

YOU'VE BEEN SELECTED

FOR OUR BEST OFFER ONLY 25¢ for 5 months

Unlimited Digital Access.

cancel anytime.