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OSHA sounds alarm on rising trench fatalities

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The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is concerned by a growing number of excavation fatalities in 2016, according to an agency official.

At least 23 workers have died in trench collapses so far in 2016, Dean McKenzie, director of OSHA’s Directorate of Construction, told the Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health in Washington on Wednesday. 

“This has been a horrible year for excavations,” he said. “We have doubled the fatalities from the year before. There’s been a rash of these in the last few weeks. I don’t know that I have a good answer for what is going on, but something is. If there’s anything we can do to redouble our efforts, it’s got to be beneficial.”

“We are trying to decide what we can do other than making our regional staff, field staff, aware of it, pushing the issue more,” Mr. McKenzie added. “Citations numbers and resources have been off a bit. We are not doing as much programmed inspection work as we have in past years.” 

In October, two construction workers were killed in Boston when a trench they were working in flooded. 

“Excavation, I think, will continue to be a problem,” he said. 

Steven Hawkins, administrator of the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration in Nashville, said one of the 2016 trench deaths occurred in his state after more than five years without such a fatality. 

“When I started to work for Tennessee OSHA 30 years ago, I did two or three (trench fatality investigations) a summer myself in Nashville,” he said. “Right after the standard was promulgated and became effective, the numbers plummeted. It is truly one of the most successful things OSHA has ever done: reduce the number of excavation fatalities.”

Tennessee OSHA considers excavation hazards an “imminent danger,” so Mr. Hawkins has pulled a state inspector off a general scheduled inspection to investigate a trench exposure, but he is not receiving as many calls from the general public about trench hazards as he did after the standard was adopted in 1989. 

“It is one of the things we will respond to immediately,” he said. “We need those eyes again. OSHA and all the state plans have very limited staff. And it’s also a hazard that’s so unforgiving, there’s nothing the worker can do to minimize his chances of that trench collapsing.”