Although a protective trench box was available nearby, for whatever reason it wasn’t deployed before backhoe operator Donald L. Meyer Jr. hopped off his rig and went into the 12-foot-deep trench he’d dug for a sewer line.
It would take firefighters hours to retrieve Meyer’s body from underneath the tons of soil that fell on top of him Dec. 15 in Belton. A co-worker was unharmed.
Meyer’s boss, Arrow Plumbing owner Ricky Smith, was not at the work site and said he doesn’t know why the box wasn’t used.
“He was a competent person by his knowledge of what he was doing, his experience,” Smith said. “He had training in trenches before he came to work for us.”
More than two dozen construction workers died this year when they were buried under tons of earth in trenches that had no shoring to keep fragile walls from giving way, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration says. That number is double what it was a year ago, but it’s been that high or higher on average for many years.
According to OSHA, there are no acceptable reasons for those deaths. Any trench deeper than 5 feet requires shoring or sloping before workers enter it.
The rules are widely known in the industry, yet trench collapse deaths continue at such a worrisome rate that trench-shoring enforcement has been one of OSHA’s top 10 areas of special emphasis since 1985, decades longer than any other current workplace hazard.
“We certainly don’t call them accidents,” OSHA spokesman Scott Allen said, “because we believe these fatalities are entirely preventable.”
Meyer’s death was the first in the Kansas City area since 2013, but only two weeks earlier, a Kansas City construction worker had been buried up to his waist and had to be rescued from a trench.
“It’s just completely sickening when it happens,” said Gary Foster, a Kansas City-area construction superintendent who took to Facebook after Meyer’s death to remind people in his industry to take better care of themselves.
“These guys cut corners like crazy,” he said in an interview. “They take incredible chances.”
A shovelful of dirt might not seem all that heavy, but a cubic yard can weigh more than a Honda Civic. Anyone at the bottom of a trench is likely engulfed in many cubic yards of soil, crushed or suffocated. Even a partial burial can be deadly; someone buried up to his chest will find it hard to breathe.
Rescuers provided oxygen and set up an IV for the worker who survived last month’s trench collapse in Kansas City. But a Virginia worker buried up to his neck died in September.
Trench failures often occur without warning. According to OSHA, most trench deaths occur almost instantaneously, in trenches 5 to 15 feet deep and under seemingly safe conditions.
Sometimes it’s the employer’s fault for not supplying proper shoring equipment.
Other times, employees inexplicably take chances.
“He said if he got in a hole and he died, it’s his fault,” the widow of a 30-year-old employee of an Iowa excavation company told the Des Moines Register after her husband was killed in a trench collapse last January. “He took a risk every day.”
Meyer, a 33-year-old from Oak Grove who had an 8-year-old son, had no financial incentive to cut corners, his employer said. He was paid by the hour, and his paycheck was the same no matter how many jobs he finished each day.
But Overland Park construction safety consultant Dave Redlin said many plumbing subcontractors pressure employees to get the job done as quickly as possible, and proper safety measures are often shirked as a result.
“They get paid by the connection,” he said. If a subcontractor can shave an hour or two off the time it takes to install a sewer line, it boosts their bottom line, and their employees know that.
As a result, some climb into holes they have no business being in to install pipes and manhole covers.
“Eighty to 90 percent of the plumbers in Kansas City all do it that way,” Redlin said. “New construction. Repairs. They all do it.”
Redlin cited two of his general contractor clients, Rodrock Homes and Summit Custom Homes, as exceptions. Both insist that their subcontractors obey the rules, he said.
But some homebuilders turn a blind eye to how the work gets done, and OSHA simply doesn’t have enough inspectors to ensure compliance.
Inconvenience is the excuse that workers and contractors often give for failing to use trench boxes and other forms of shoring, the agency says.
“The reasons why employers choose to not supply the proper safety measures boggles OSHA as much as everyone else,” said Allen, the agency spokesman.
Violations of trenching rules can be costly. OSHA recently proposed nearly $275,000 in fines for an Ohio plumbing company for allegedly failing to provide cave-in protection or train its employees to recognize collapse hazards.
Those penalties followed the June 15 death of one of the company’s employees, who had escaped a cave-in earlier on the same day he was engulfed by 91,000 pounds of soil at the bottom of a 12-foot trench.
“It’s getting deep,” 33-year-old James Rogers texted his girlfriend two hours before the incident, including a photo of the trench.
“OMG babe be smart! And safe,” she texted back, according to one news account.
Maximum penalty amounts were adjusted for inflation recently after many years without changing. Serious violations are now $12,471, up from $7,000. And the fine for willful or repeated violations has risen from $70,000 to $124,709.
Violators don’t always end up paying what’s initially proposed. OSHA fined a Holden, Mo., company $35,000 in connection with the 2013 trench collapse death in Lee’s Summit of 49-year-old Brian Allen of Windsor, Mo.
But Larry Strate Plumbing & Heating got it knocked down to $5,600 with the help of Redlin, the safety consultant.
“I proved that his employee was trained and knew better,” Redlin said.
Allen’s mother declined to comment, and his widow could not be reached.
But the wife of Jaxson Jorgensen, the 30-year-old Iowa excavating company employee killed in January, was upset when she learned of the penalty levied against her husband’s employer.
“I lose my husband, and they only get $4,500 in fines,” Brandy Jorgensen told the Des Moines Register. “The day I read that, I lost it.”
Criminal prosecutions are rare.
A New York City construction foreman this month received a sentence of one to three years in prison after he was convicted of criminally negligent homicide for the trench collapse death of a man under his supervision.
But that case was egregious because inspectors had repeatedly told foreman Wilmer Cueva that the Manhattan construction site was unsafe.
“You let him die,” the judge in the case scolded Cueva at the sentencing, according to one news account.
But the same thing could be said for contractors who fail to insist that their workers follow rules that almost certainly would keep them from getting killed.
The deaths “weigh on me heavily,” Redlin said.
He thinks it would help if cities required contractors to have shoring in place before inspectors sign off on plumbing work. Most don’t, he said.
Redlin often raises money for the survivors of construction accidents. A GoFundMe campaign campaign was set up to benefit the young son of the backhoe operator killed in Belton this month. But Redlin plans on doing something special on his own.
“I feel for that little boy,” he said. “It’s tearing at my heartstrings.”