Cited Twice in 1 Week for Trenches, Contractor Faces $220,000 in Penalties

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Workers for H&W Contracting LLC in South Dakota were found twice in one week in six separate trenches that did not have cave-in protection, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration.
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Inspectors found workers in trenches with no cave-in protection at a contractor’s jobsite in South Dakota, and within a week workers were again found in unprotected trenches on another of the contractor’s sites, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration.

H&W Contracting LLC of Sioux Falls now faces proposed OSHA penalties of nearly $220,000. Since 2019, OSHA had cited H&W four previous times for similar violations, according to online records.

The most recent penalties, issued May 4, stem from two inspections in November that followed complaints about working conditions in six separate trenches, five of which were on one site.

“Each site had a different foreman, different crew members and a different scope of work,” said OSHA Area Director Sheila Stanley in Sioux Falls. “The common thread is H&W Contracting’s continued failure to protect its workers.”

Recent and past violations

On November 16, four workers were in a trench as deep as 13 feet in some areas and contained sections of vertical wall. They were installing a 6-inch water line to a fire hydrant in Tea, South Dakota. OSHA issued the following citations:

(Serious violations are those when the workplace hazard could cause an accident that would most likely cause death or harm, unless the employer did not know or could not have known of the violation. Willful violations are ones in which the employer either knowingly failed to comply or acted with plain indifference to employee safety.)

  • The trench did not have adequate cave-in protection. Willful violation, $95,718 penalty.
  • The designated competent person failed to remove four employees from potential harm from multiple hazards, including unsupported utility lines, unprotected trench sides and edges, water accumulation in the trench and unsafe trench exit. Serious violation, $11,167.
  • The employer did not ensure that multiple utilities, including gas, water, electrical and communication lines, were supported and protected from the potential release of hazardous energy. Serious violation, $11,167.
  • The side rails of the fly section of the extension ladder used to enter and exit the trench did not extend at least 3 feet above the top of the trench. It was only 17 inches past the top level, exposing employees to fall hazards. Serious violation, $4,786.

Then on November 22, inspectors arrived at another H&W jobsite, in Salem, South Dakota, where workers were replacing storm sewers. There were five separate trenches at this site, ranging in depth from more than 7 to more than 9 feet.

In all five trenches, workers were not protected from cave-in, OSHA says. That led to a willful violation and proposed penalty of $95,718.

These recent violations were not H&W’s first. According to online records, the company has been cited four times since 2019 for failure to provide adequate cave-in protection before the latest alleged violations. Penalties in those cases, including a repeat violation, totaled $26,820 through settlements with OSHA.

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“Trench collapses are among the construction industry’s most deadly hazards,” Stanley says. “Workers caught when thousands of pounds of loose soil and rocks pour on and around them often suffer serious injuries or worse. H&W Contracting must change the way it operates before disaster strikes.”

The company has 15 business days from receipt of its citations and penalties to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA's area director, or contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

Preventing trench collapse

OSHA has a national emphasis program on trenching and excavations

Trenching standards require protective systems on trenches deeper than 5 feet, and soil and other materials kept at least 2 feet from the edge of a trench. Additionally, trenches must be inspected by a knowledgeable person, be free of standing water and atmospheric hazards and have a safe means of entering and exiting prior to allowing a worker to enter. 

The National Utility Contractors Association has declared June â€śTrench Safety Month.” OSHA will collaborate with the association for “Trench Safety Stand-Down” week, June 20-24.

OSHA’s trenching and excavation webpage provides additional information on trenching hazards and solutions, including a safety video.