LOS ANGELES—The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has introduced new measures to protect workers from trench collapses, a move that is “vital for U.S. workers” say leaders of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (NCOSH).
So far in 2022 there have been 22 trench deaths recorded, exceeding the 12-month total for previous years. There were 15 deaths in 2021 and 18 during the 12 months of 2020.
The OSHA announced July 15 it will perform more than 1,000 trench inspections nationwide, and “place additional emphasis on how agency officials evaluate penalties…including criminal referrals for federal or state prosecution to hold employers and others accountable when their actions or inactions kill workers or put their lives at risk.”
“There is no reason, ever, for a worker to die unprotected in a trench collapse,” said NCOSH co-executive director Jessica Martinez in a statement. “Workers have been building trenches for literally thousands of years. We know how to do it safely: Slope the trench at a safe angle, shore it up, or shield workers with appropriate safety equipment.
“Any employer that doesn’t follow these well-established safety protocols is putting workers’ lives at risk. If a worker is injured or killed in a trench, that’s no accident, it’s a crime, and it should be prosecuted.”
Advocacy efforts in recent years have included:
∙ Carlos’s Law, New York State: In 2015, Carlos Moncayo, a 22-year-old construction worker who immigrated to New York City from Ecuador, was killed in a trench collapse. His employer, Harco Construction, was convicted of manslaughter but paid just $10,000 in fines, permitted under state law at the time.
The New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health was among the advocates calling for tougher penalties. Seven years after Moncayo’s death, “Carlos’s Law” has passed the New York state legislature and awaits Gov. Kathy Hochul’s signature. It will increase minimum fines to $300,000 for misdemeanors and $500,000 for felony cases involving workplace injuries or deaths.
∙ Mattocks-Higgins Affidavit of Workplace Safety, Boston: In 2016, construction workers Kelvin Mattocks and Robert Higgins drowned after a trench collapse at a Boston construction site. Their employer, Atlantic Drain, had a long history of safety violations.
In December 2016, with support from the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, Boston City Council passed a new ordinance requiring employers to complete the Mattocks-Higgins Affidavit of Workplace Safety, disclosing any past safety violations. The ordinance empowers the city to deny construction permits to unsafe employers.
∙ Criminal prosecution in Fairfax County, Va.: In 2019, 16-year-old Spencer Lunde died after a trench collapse at a construction site in Fairfax County. Several national COSH affiliates joined an appeal to Fairfax County Commonwealth Attorney Raymond Morrogh, calling for a criminal investigation into the incident.
In November 2019, Thomas Digges, owner of the Digges Development Corporation, was indicted on charges stemming from Lunde’s death, including involuntary manslaughter and cruelty and injuries to children.