A little more than a week ago, family members and coworkers watched helplessly as 39-year old Raul Zapata was buried alive when a wall of dirt fell on him at a residential construction worksite in Milpitas, California. Zapata was working in a 12-foot deep ditch, the foundation of a 5,800 square foot home in a gated community. The cave in was extensive enough that it took two days to rescue his body. Zapata and his coworkers should not have been working at all that day because three days prior, the city had issued a stop work order to the construction company, U.S. Sino Investments Inc. The order was issued after a city building inspector determined that the ditch was a safety hazard due to a lack of adequate shoring to prevent a cave-in.
To add insult to injury, the employer did not have workers' comp insurance. They also lacked a permit, a state requirement for any projects deeper than five feet. In a case of closing the barn door, the Contractors State License Board has since suspended U.S.-Sino Investment's general building contractor license for this failure. The flouting of the stop work order, the failure to get a trenching permit and the failure to carry workers comp coverage - these are not unsurprising accompaniments to trenching fatalities. Fatalities are often preceded by multiple citations or warnings and violators are often serial violators. It's not uncommon for OSHA to issue mulitple "willful" citations related to trenching failures. OSHA defines a willful violation as one "committed with an intentional disregard of, or plain indifference to" OSHA requirements, the highest level of citation, carrying fines of $5,000 to $70,000 per incident.
Two workers a month are buried alive in trench collapses. Most of these tragedies are avoidable simply by following OSHA standards, which mandate that all excavations 5 feet or deeper be protected against collapse. It's a stroke of luck that no other workers were killed at the Milpitas site - it's not uncommon for rescuers to rush to the aid of a victim and become entrapped themselves when an a secondary collapse occurs. Trench rescues require speed, precision, and expertise.
To help curtail fatalities that OSHA describes as "entirely preventable," in October they released new trenching safety guidance, including the following safety materials: