Why Must Plumbers Die?

Trench collapses claim about 30 workers a year.
Why Must Plumbers Die?
A 19-year-old male was buried alive after a trench caved in on workers, Feb. 13, in Cypress, Texas. (Photo and video courtesy ABC 13 Eyewitness News)

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April is National Safe Digging Month, an opportunity to promote safe practices in an effort to curb the epidemic of plumbing deaths due to trench cave-ins.

On average, about 30 workers die in trench collapses each year – that’s five times greater than the number of troops killed in Iraq the past four years combined; 30 times the number of people who died during the 2014 Ebola virus outbreak in the U.S. and 10 times the number of people who died in the Boston Marathon bombing.

Despite the numbers, this underground epidemic, which claims two to three lives a month, largely goes unnoticed. Tragically, many of these deaths could and should be prevented.

Twenty-one-year-old Jacob Casher (pictured) was three weeks on the job when he went back to retrieve a shovel that was left in an 11-foot, unshored trench.

Related: Unshored Trench Claims Life of Pennsylvania Plumber

He was part of a four-man crew that was wrapping up for the day after relocating sewer lines at a nursing home in Butler, Pennsylvania, when the cave-in occurred.

It took rescue workers several hours to recover the body.

In March, the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited A Rooter-Man for two willful and seven serious violations in the incident. The citations carry a total of $174,000 in penalties.

Federal inspectors found the company exposed multiple employees regularly to cave-in hazards while they worked in unprotected excavations more than 5 feet deep. The agency determined that since the company’s owner normally served as the excavator on the job, he was aware of the highly unstable condition of the excavated soil. OSHA found the employer also failed to protect employees from loose rock or soil by not keeping the spoils pile at least 2 feet from the edge of the excavation.

“Common-sense safety practices would have prevented this trench from turning into a worker’s grave,” says Christopher Robinson, director of OSHA’s Pittsburgh Area Office.

See the video:

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show 271 workers died in trenching or excavation cave-ins from 2000 through 2006. A review of multiple databases by NIOSH researchers found that trenching and excavation hazards during construction resulted in 488 deaths between 1992 and 2000 — an average of 54 fatalities each year. Sixty-eight percent of those fatalities occurred in companies with fewer than 50 workers and 46 percent of the deaths occurred in small companies with 10 or fewer employees.

Here are their stories:

On March 1, 2005, a 35-year-old plumber in California died while connecting a residential sewer line in a 7-foot-deep, unshored, unbenched and unsloped trench that had been unearthed by other utilities, with spoils placed next to the edge of the trench. The company had shoring, but it was not at the job site. The victim was hired two days before the accident and had not yet been to the company’s orientation and safety training.

On April 4, 2007, an employee working for TCS Plumbing in Richardson, Texas, suffocated when the west wall of a 12-foot-deep he was working in collapsed. The plumbing company had been hired to unclog a drain and found the problem to be a broken sewer line approximately 14 feet deep. The victim was working with a shovel in the bottom of the trench, cutting down the sides and shoveling the loose soil into the center of the trench so it could be removed by a backhoe. According to the OSHA accident report, the backhoe operator was not allowed to cut down the sides of the trench because a fiber optic cable and gas line were present in the unshored trench.

In May 2007, a 46-year-old, self-employed plumbing contractor died when the unprotected trench he was working in collapsed. According to a New York State Department of Health report, the plumber was connecting a sewer line as part of a project to install a new sanitary sewer for an existing single-family residence.

Workers on site observed the victim walking back toward the residence for parts and began a search when he did not answer his cellphone. The victim was found trapped about 7 feet down in the unshored trench under a large slab of asphalt, rock and soil where he was installing a sewer tap.

In February, one person died after a trench caved in on construction workers in Cypress, Texas. According to Eyewitness News, a 19-year-old male was buried alive. OSHA officials are investigating.

Check out the video:

Would you work in this trench?

Tom Johnson refused to go into this unshored trench last month and wouldn’t let his apprentice enter either. Notice the excavator parked nearby.

“Those are 12-foot vertical walls about 20 feet or so on both sides,” the North Dakota contractor posted in the Plumbers Alert Facebook group. “There was more than enough room to bench it back properly.”

Related: Ditch the Risk: Shoring is Your Best Friend

Beginning April 6, in the first of a two-part series, David Dow (pictured), chair of the training committee of the North American Excavation Shoring Association (NAXSA) and co‑founder and vice president of TrenchSafety and Supply, provides a refresher course in worker safety in and around trenches and excavations in an effort to keep plumbers safe.


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