Take a look at the photo and see if you can name the OSHA trench safety violations.
There’s a man in the trench – look closely, because you can barely see him. Then, there are the eight men surrounding the newly excavated hole, putting pressure on the excavation face. There’s no sloping, shielding or shoring—nothing to hold the soil back if it ever started to move.
There’s also no OSHA violation.
Because these workers are employed by a city, not a private contractor, they don’t come under OSHA, an exemption dating back to the original 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act. Instead, the safety of governmental workers is covered by a hodgepodge of state laws.
According to safety consulting firm J. J. Keller, 21 states, plus Puerto Rico, have adopted state plans for both public and private entities. These programs, which have received the blessing of OSHA, are staterun, but jointly funded by the federal and state government. Another five states, plus the Virgin Islands, have state plans that cover just the public sector.
It gets more complicated. While they do not run state plans, six states (Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, West Virginia and Wisconsin) have what safety consultant BLR calls “comprehensive protections” for public sector workers that are at least as strict as OSHA regs.
The level of adherence to OSHA regs for public workers then starts to dwindle, with six states – Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania – adopting some, but not all, of the OSHA rules.
Georgia and Texas have adopted only the federal agency’s hazmat communication rules. The remaining 10 states – Alabama, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, and North and South Dakota – do not regulate workplace safety for the public sector.
Back to the picture. Since it was taken in Alabama, one of the states with no OSHA-related public worker safety laws, only the laws of common sense were violated. My hope is this crew’s supervisor took one look at this picture in the local newspaper and immediately initiated trench safety training.
While I hear plenty of gripes from contractors on how OSHA interprets its regs, I don’t hear much carping about the regs themselves, especially those pertaining to trench safety. Do a quick internet search on trench accidents, and you’ll see the reason why; there’s been a litany of deadly events in the past two years alone.
Regulations, of course, are only one part of the safety picture; they do not address the awareness needed when situations are dangerous, or the assertiveness required to call out a bad plan of action. Meanwhile, the physics of a cavein remain constant a cubic foot of soil weighs an average of 100 pounds – no matter who employs the the person in the trench.