Pitfalls of Trench Work Reprised in Fatal Louisville Accident

A trench

Rasbak/Wikimedia Commons

An example of a trench

Thursday’s death of a 19-year-old construction worker in a trench cave-in in south Louisville serves as yet another reminder of the dangers of doing utility work in deep holes.

Jonathon Moore, an employee of Josh Lefevre Construction Co. of Jackson, Tenn., was pulled from a nearly 10-foot-deep trench in which concrete and dirt collapsed during work on a sewer line on Dixie Highway. Deputy Coroner Larry Carroll said Moore was pronounced dead at the scene of traumatic asphyxia and blunt impact injuries.

As federal data illustrates, trench work can be fatal. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 22 people died from excavation or trench cave-ins in 2013. Another 610 people were injured or became ill. Although Kentucky had not had a trench fatality since an April 2012 accident in Clay County, 70 workers were hurt on trench and ditch- and channel-digging jobs in 2013.

“When you put workers in an unprotected trench, you are putting them in a grave,” said William Cochran, director of OSHA’s Nashville area office. “These hazards are easily identified and totally avoidable. There is no excuse to expose workers to unprotected trenches.”

Lefevre Construction previously paid $3,500 to settle OSHA citations of two “serious” violations from a November 2011 scaffolding accident in Greensburg, Ky.

Moore had only been working for Josh Lefevre for a couple of weeks and was four days from his 20th birthday, Carroll said. Lefevre Construction did not return a phone call for comment.

Moore’s co-worker was trapped for about five hours before being freed relatively unharmed by rescue workers.

Trench fortifications had been installed to keep the dirt wall from caving in on the workers, but excavated debris, including concrete slabs, slid back into the hole, Pleasure Ridge Park Assistant Fire Chief Dan Vanover told WDRB.

Louisville Metro Police Department is investigating the death, and the Kentucky Labor Department is investigating the accident for compliance with workplace safety laws.

Federal law requires a number of protections for trench workers. Trenches more than five feet deep must have an “adequate protection system,” often an adjustable “trench box” ensuring that dirt walls don’t collapse. They also require a ladder protruding at least three feet from the trench opening, said Kentucky Labor Department spokesman Daniel Lowry.

OSHA issued 1,462 citations for trench-safety violations nationwide in the year ended Sept. 30, 2014, including 32 classified as “willful” and 103 as “repeat.” The citations resulted in $4.9 million in fines.

In Kentucky, 37 citations were issued and $194,450 in fines levied for trench safety violations in the fiscal year ended last Sept. 30, according to OSHA.

Last July, the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting wrote about state Labor Department accusations against Louisville Water Co. for allegedly failing to provide adequate worker protections in a 6 ½-foot-deep trench on Leman Drive. The agency said the trench had no wall cave-in supports and an insufficient ladder. Louisville Water is contesting the one “willful” and two “serious” citations and an $84,000 fine.

Reporter James McNair can be reached at jmcnair@kycir.org or (502) 814.6543.

Update: This story has been updated regarding the identity of OSHA’s director of its Nashville area office. The agency had previously issued a statement with the incorrect spelling of William Cochran’s name. 

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