In the Trenches: 2022 Deadliest in 18 Years; Contractor Faces $500K Fine; Deaths in OK, NY

The construction industry is coming off the deadliest year for trenching and excavation in 18 years.

In 2022, 39 people died while working in trenches or excavations, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. That’s more than double 2021’s number of deaths, and the most since 2005, when 39 construction workers died in trench collapses, according to data from the 2019 CPWR study “Recent Trenching Fatalities: Causes and Ways to Reduce”; the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; and OSHA.

OSHA sounded the alarm last year after 22 workers died in the first six months of 2022, and ramped up enforcement and education efforts. Contractors have been hit with six-figure fines. And state prosecutors in Connecticut and Colorado have filed criminal charges against contractors after fatal trench collapses in those states.

Contractor faces $505,333 in proposed penalties

In March, OSHA announced $505,333 in proposed penalties against a North Dakota contractor who has repeatedly been cited for workers in trenches without cave-in protection.

Seven times in five years, Bowers Excavating LLC of Mandan, North Dakota, has been found by OSHA inspectors exposing workers to possible trench collapse, the agency says. Most recently, the company was cited and issued proposed penalties of $505,333 for exposing workers to trenching hazards three times in 2022. The company also has three violations from 2019 and one in 2021.

For the citations stemming from 2022, OSHA says the owner of the company was operating an excavator on two occasions while workers were in trenches 10 feet deep with no cave-in protection installing municipal water lines. OSHA opened three inspections on the company within 32 days between September and October.

“Since 2019, OSHA has repeatedly warned Bowers Excavating about the dangers of working in an unprotected trench,” said OSHA Regional Administrator Jennifer Rous in Denver. “The idea that our inspectors found the company’s owner actively supervising employees as they worked without required protection at two worksites in 2022 is very troubling and shows a callous disregard for human life.”

OSHA cited Bowers for failing to use adequate protective systems and failing to provide a safe means of entering and exiting the trenches. Soil piles were at least 2 feet from the edge of the trench, and workers were not protected from hazards related to water accumulating in trenches. 

Bowers is contesting the citations and penalties.

Trench deaths in New York and Oklahoma

On April 3, two workers died in a trench collapse at Kennedy International Airport in New York.

Francisco Reyes, 41, and Fernando Lagunas Pereira, 28, were moving utility lines as part of an airport expansion project. The men were in a 30-foot-deep trench when they became trapped under construction rubble. About 60 rescue personnel responded to the incident but were unable to save the workers.

Then a week later on April 10, Jose Valenzuela, 48, was in a trench replacing a residential sewer line in Holdenville, Oklahoma. It took about eight hours to remove his body.

OSHA is investigating the incident. Valenzuela worked for Dawson Does It Plumbing Inc. in Holdenville.

OSHA fines could rise

It’s possible penalties could climb even higher in 2023, not only because of OSHA’s annual inflation increase in penalties, but because the agency adopted more stringent enforcement guidelines that started March 26 for trenching as well as other construction-related violations. Under the new guidelines, OSHA inspectors can issue “instance by instance” citations for certain “high gravity” serious violations rather than grouping them together. In the past, instance-by-instance applied only to willful violations. Focusing on each instance can lead to higher penalties.

“The change is intended to ensure OSHA personnel are applying the full authority of the Occupational Safety and Health Act where increased citations are needed to discourage non-compliance,” the agency says.

OSHA also recently announced it has launched an outreach campaign in its Midwest region to work directly with employers, workers, state agencies and industry associations­­­ to try to prevent trenching injuries and deaths. The region had six deaths in 2022, with four in Illinois and two in Ohio.

“A trench collapse can bury workers under thousands of pounds of soil and rocks in seconds, making escape and survival often impossible,” says OSHA Regional Administrator Bill Donovan in Chicago. “With proper training and use of required safety procedures, incidents like these can be prevented. OSHA and industry employers are working hard to raise awareness of hazards and protective measures and educate employers on how they must protect workers. 

“By launching this trench and excavation safety campaign as the spring construction season gets into full swing, OSHA and its partners are determined to make sure industry workers finish their daily shifts safely.”

{Related Content: How to Prevent Death from Trench Collapse}