Unshored Trench Claims Life of Pennsylvania Plumber

Despite warning from boss and co-workers, Rooter-Man employee went back to retrieve shovel left in hole
Unshored Trench Claims Life of Pennsylvania Plumber
Rescue workers retrieve a Rooter-Man employee from a trench cave-in Sept. 28 in Butler County, Pennsylvania. (Courtesy KDKA-TV, Pittsburgh)

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An “unprotected” trench claimed the life of a Rooter-Man employee last month when he went back to pick up a shovel. OSHA said the 10- or 11-foot trench had no shoring or benching with no metal inside.

Jacob Casher was part of a four-man crew relocating sewer lines at a nursing home in Butler, Pennsylvania, when the accident occurred.

Employees of the locally owned plumbing and drain cleaning company, which does not have a history of OSHA violations, were preparing to leave the site when Casher spotted a shovel left in the trench. Despite warnings from his boss and co-workers, Casher decided to go back when the walls collapsed on him.

Workers managed to clear away enough dirt to expose Casher’s head and chest but could not get him out of the heavy, wet soil, according to the Butler Eagle.

“I got there and they were still in the hole trying to get him out. I told them to get out for their own safety,” Penn Township police officer Jack Ripper told the newspaper.

Members of the Southern Butler County Technical Rescue Team, specializing in trench rescue, were joined by rescue teams from Beaver and Mercer counties. They inserted 4-foot by 4-foot wooden boards to shore up the walls and wedged hydraulic jacks between the boards, the newspaper reported.

It took rescue workers several hours to recover the body.

Casher, a 2013 Clearfield High School high honors graduate, earned a welding degree from Penn Tech and was working for his uncle Jim English at Rooter-Man Plumbing of Hookstown, Pennsylvania, at the time of the accident.

The victim enjoyed hunting and reading, but mostly loved to fish. He was 21.

Excavation hazards

Excavation and trenching are among the most hazardous construction operations. OSHA defines an excavation as any man-made cut, cavity, trench or depression in the earth’s surface formed by earth removal. A trench is defined as a narrow underground excavation that is deeper than it is wide, and is no wider than 15 feet.

Cave-ins pose the greatest risk and are more likely than other excavation-related accidents to result in worker fatalities. Other potential hazards include falls, falling loads, hazardous atmospheres and incidents involving mobile equipment. Trench collapses cause dozens of fatalities and hundreds of injuries each year.

OSHA standards require trenches 5 feet deep or greater to have a protective system in place, unless the excavation is made entirely in stable rock. Trenches 20 feet deep or greater require that the protective system be designed by a registered professional engineer or be based on tabulated data prepared and/or approved by a registered professional engineer.

Protective systems
There are different types of protective systems. Sloping involves cutting back the trench wall at an angle inclined away from the excavation. Shoring requires installing aluminum hydraulic or other types of supports to prevent soil movement and cave-ins. Shielding protects workers by using trench boxes or other types of supports to prevent soil cave-ins. Designing a protective system can be complex because you must consider many factors: soil classification, depth of cut, water content of soil, changes due to weather or climate, surcharge loads (e.g., spoil, other materials to be used in the trench) and other operations in the vicinity.

Competent person
OSHA standards require that trenches be inspected daily and as conditions change by a competent person prior to worker entry to ensure elimination of excavation hazards. A competent person is an individual who is capable of identifying existing and predictable hazards or working conditions that are hazardous, unsanitary or dangerous to employees, and who is authorized to take prompt corrective measures to eliminate or control these hazards and conditions.

Access and egress
OSHA requires safe access and egress to all excavations, including ladders, steps, ramps or other safe means of exit for employees working in trench excavations 4 feet or deeper. These devices must be located within 25 feet of all workers.

General trenching and excavation rules

  • Keep heavy equipment away from trench edges
  • Keep surcharge loads at least 2 feet from trench edges
  • Know where underground utilities are located
  • Test for low oxygen, hazardous fumes and toxic gases
  • Inspect trenches at the start of each shift
  • Inspect trenches following a rainstorm
  • Do not work under raised loads

Additional information
For more information, visit OSHA’s Trenching and Excavation Web page.


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