On Record: In the trenches

Jeffrey Lew, a professor in the building construction management program at Purdue University, is also an expert witness in trench cave-in court cases. “I’ve seen contractors sent to jail,” he says.

So when it comes to the “why” behind trench cave-ins, Lew has some definite opinions. “Two main problems emerge,” he says. “One, the firm involved usually doesn’t have someone who’s gone through competent person training. The second is an underlying attitude there’s little chance a cave-in will occur.”

The second problem is reinforced every time a company gets away with an unsafe trench. It didn’t happen the past 10 times a crew member entered a risky trench, so it won’t happen on this job.

Lew particularly points the finger at small contractors. “Generally, the larger companies have made great improvements in this area,” he says. “It’s the smaller companies that tend to have the serious accidents.” These are contractors who need to get rid of the “I’m not big enough to train” attitude, he says.

“When training, you have to tell your workers the why behind everything,” Lew says. Your workers should know at least the basics, including the ability to recognize signs that a trench is ready to give in such as cracks in soil parallel to the trench, horizontal cracks in the face of the excavation and subsidence of the trench edge.

But you don’t have to rely on your own resources to get your people trained on trench safety. In fact, until March 31st, you can download a National Utility Contractors Association training course absolutely free from their website, www.nuca.com. NUCA’s Excavation Safety Orientation Training DVD, created under an OSHA training grant with Vista Training, is an interactive, pictorial-based DVD that teaches workers how to recognize safety and health hazards when working around excavations. Produced in both English and Spanish with an audio and visual text, it’s designed to appeal to workers with limited education or reading skills.

To date, the NUCA website has seen more than 2,000 free downloads of the program. “Download requests have come in from all over the world,” says William H. Plenge, executive director of NUCA’s foundation. “Training directors love it. I have not received a single negative comment on content.”

To download the DVD to a Windows-based computer on a high-speed connection, go to www.nuca.com. Be forewarned, however, this is a 700-megabyte program and usually takes 60 to 90 minutes to download. (Hard copies can be bought from the NUCA Store for $40 by calling (703) 358-9300.)

Making sure your workers view this program is a great start. Be sure, however, you go at least one step further: Let them know they have the right to refuse to go down into any trench they consider unsafe without jeopardizing their job.

Because one thing’s for sure: You don’t want to meet Lew in court.