Hobart, Indiana – A 62-year-old South Haven construction worker, Guy Holk, died in an evacuation site accident in Northwest Indiana on November 1, 2017, after being pinned against a wall by the bucket of an excavator. Hobart Police Department Lieutenant James Gonzalez stated that at approximately noon, emergency responders were called to the area of Pennsylvania Ave. And Lakeshore Drive where a construction crew was replacing sewer lines. When responders arrived, the victim was found unresponsive and pronounced dead at the evacuation site at 1:38 PM by the Lake County coroner’s office.
The lieutenant explained that the “operator of the excavator was inside of the cab and turned to speak with the crew member on the ground. The operator of the excavator turned back to situate himself in the seat when a piece of his clothing caught a lever, which controlled the bucket on the excavator.” The lieutenant stated in a report that “the bucket, which was positioned inside the hole, moved forward and pinned the crew member against the wall.” A death investigation remains open.”
Workplace Safety Hazards
While nearly all construction sites can be dangerous, excavation sites are inherently hazardous to workers and crew members especially when working in confined spaces. The CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) revealed data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics that show that more than 270 construction workers died in excavation and trenching cave-ins between 2000 and 2006.
This number had dropped dramatically from previous years where a reported 488 deaths associated with trenching accidents occurred between 1992 in 2000. However, statistics maintained by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) noted that excavation site deaths more than doubled in 2016, involving collapsed trenches.
The federal agency states in their Trenching and Evacuation Safety Fact Sheet that “excavation and trenching are among the most hazardous construction operations. OSHA says that the most potential hazards include cave-ins, falling loads, falls, hazardous environments and “incidents involving mobile equipment. Trench collapses cause dozens of fatalities and hundreds of injuries each year.”
Maintaining a safe excavation site is every worker’s responsibility. According to the New York County District Attorney’s Office, foreman Wilmer Cueva working for an excavation subcontractor, ignored “warnings about unlawfully inadequate safety precautions and active excavation site that he managed, which caused the death of a 22-year-old worker… and endangered several other construction workers.” Cueva was “convicted by a New York State Supreme Court jury of criminally negligent homicide and reckless endangerment.” The Sky Materials Corporation foreman received a sentence of 1 to 3 years in prison.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Junior stated that “when construction supervisors take shortcuts, they take chances with their workers’ lives. As proven at trial, Wilmer Cueva ignored repeated warnings about the treacherous state of the evacuations he was directing – resulting in the preventable and foreseeable death of [the construction worker].”
In June 2016, a Washington Township Ohio company was cited by OSHA after an employee lost his life in a crushing accident while “digging soil out of a 12-foot trench.” The collapsing trench walls brought down thousands of pounds of soil burying the worker’s body that was recovered a few hours after the incident occurred. OSHA began an immediate investigation and cited the company for their failure to “provide trench cave-in protection” for workers who were installing a sewer line at the time at a residential home.
OSHA Cincinnati area director Ken Montgomery said, “this man’s life could have been saved by following OSHA’s safety standards that require cave-in protection in a trench more than 5 feet deep.” Director Montgomery also stated that “Excavating companies need to reexamine their safety procedures to ensure they are taking all available precautions, including installing trench boxes, shoring, and other means to prevent unexpected [problems with the soil that] can cause walls to collapse.…” The company was fined $270,000, and likely faces a civil suit to be filed by the decedent’s surviving family members for compensatory and possibly punitive damages.
In May 2017, a construction worker was buried completely by a collapsing 14-foot trench. The 34-year-old victim could continue breathing after coworkers freed his head from the fallen dirt. Emergency responders took more than one-half hour to free him from the collapsed trench. OSHA investigators cited the company First Dakota Enterprises Inc. for their failure to follow procedures and failure to use a trenching protective system and perform routine site inspections to look for potentially dangerous problems.
A Preventable Accident
Most trenching and evacuation fatalities could have been avoided had the employer taken preventative measures to ensure the safety and well-being of their employees. These measures include:
- Provide workers with trench protection against cave-ins;
- Provide workers protection from excavated material that can roll or fall into the trench from up above;
- Protect workers from dirt and debris falling inside the walls of the trench;
- Train workers on how to recognize the hazards of trenching to avoid common pitfalls of wall collapses and equipment injuries and fatalities.
Employers are required to follow OSHA trenching standards where the crew must follow protective systems when working in trenches that are 5 feet or deeper to ensure workers remain safe. Also, the soil and other excavated materials must be kept a minimum of 2 feet away from the trench edge. At a trench depth of 4 feet or more, the workers must be provided an easy means of egress to get out of the trench quickly to avoid a catastrophe.