Two things stand out about the trench collapse that killed Kenneth Stafford: neither OSHA nor the workers comp system got involved.

Stafford was not an employee; he was working directly for the homeowner — which is why his survivors were able to file a $6 million lawsuit against the homeowner. It would have been harder to sue if he’d been an employee covered by workers comp.

I’d like to be able to say these things never happen to construction pros, but it happens all the time. Part of my job is to scour the web for news, and in any given month I run across dozens of stories about tradesmen being killed or injured in trench collapses.

Contrary to what most people think, you do not have to be completely buried to die in a trench collapse. Rick Griggs of the Riverside California County Fire Department was quoted in a JLC story (Southern California Grapples With Three Trench Collapses — One Fatal) about the rescue of Herminio Parra-Alarcon, who survived being partially buried but later died of injuries that were not visible to the naked eye:

Even among victims who are only partly buried, that outcome (death) is not uncommon, notes Griggs. "It's called ‘crush syndrome,'" he says, explaining that when blood flow is cut off by soil pressure, red blood cells die and rupture. "When the pressure is released, that sends a big surge of potassium into the bloodstream, which can cause irrecoverable cardiac arrest."

The video below shows some tradesmen who should know better. An OSHA inspector happened upon the site, and the trench collapsed while he was there. If the guy in the hole had been standing next to the box instead of on top of it, he would have certainly been injured and possibly killed.

My point? Do not go into deep unsupported trenches — ever. I don’t know about you, but I have yet to build anything so awesome that it was worth dying for.

Archived Comments

November 06, 2012

I don't know the details of the title event but most homeowner's insurance policies contain a worker's compensation clause to provide comp coverage for workers employed to work at the covered property. Way back in the early '80s, before I was licensed, I did an addition for a homeowner who obtained a certificate from his insurer. This allowed me to pull permits as his employee.

Posted By: suburbangeorge | Time: 6:34:07.51 PM

November 07, 2012

Thanks for the excellent video of a trench collapsing. It was almost a video of a man being killed in a trench collapse. It illustrates that companies in the trenching business know or should know the risks of death from putting a worker in an unprotected trench. I don't think such a death is an "accident" at all. Rather, such deaths are due to criminal negligence, and should be prosecuted as nelgigent homicides. With a few more prosecutions and jail time, companies will stop putting people in unsecured trenches.

Posted By: Edward Stern | Time: 4:47:06.62 PM