Trench death leads to proposed fine of $145,860 for Ohio contractor

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Updated Aug 9, 2019
An example of an unsafe trench.An example of an unsafe trench.

An Ohio plumbing contractor faces proposed fines of $145,860 following a trench collapse that killed a 43-year-old employee during a residential sewer installation project.

Payne Enterprises of Dayton was cited for two repeat violations for failing to install adequate collapse protection and for not having a competent person inspect the trench before employees entered it, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Each violation carries a penalty of $72,930.

Payne was also placed in OSHA’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program. The company was cited for similar violations in 2017 and 2018, OSHA says. According to OSHA, the enforcement program focuses on inspecting companies that have “demonstrated indifference” to federal worker-safety regulations, and it requires follow-up inspections and other measures.

Dalbert BurtonDalbert Burton

The collapse occurred April 6 as Dalbert Burton was inside a 14-foot-deep trench in Sugarcreek Township. A neighbor saw a backhoe still running at the jobsite and saw someone at the bottom of the trench. Emergency responders determined that he had died before they arrived. The trench had not been shored.

Burton is survived by his wife, three children and three grandchildren. Another grandchild is expected in August. According to his obituary, he operated heavy equipment and drove dump trucks for Payne for eight years. He enjoyed fishing, camping, traveling and riding his motorcycle.

Prior to the incident, OSHA had fined Payne $7,606 for four serious violations stemming from excavation safety violations on May 3, 2017; and $10,670 for violations on September 4, 2018, including two repeat violations for trench safety.

Two days after Burton’s death, Christopher Reid McDonald died in a 20-foot-deep trench in Marysville, Ohio. He was working for J&J Schlaegel of Urbana on April 8 on a project to relocate a water line.

J&J Schlaegel has also been fined in the past for trench safety violations. The company was fined $1,428 for a serious violation April 29, 2015, according to OSHA records.

McDonald, 34, is survived by two children and his fiancée. The OSHA investigation into his death remains open.

Payne Enterprises has 15 business days from receipt of the citation and penalties to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA’s area director or contest the findings before the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

“Tragedies such as this are preventable when employers comply with safety standards that exist to protect workers from trenching hazards,” said OSHA Area Director Ken Montgomery. “OSHA regulations require employers to slope, shore or shield trench walls to prevent cave-ins.”

For more on the business and human costs of trench-collapse fatalities, see Equipment World’s special report “Death by Trench”.