Public Services, Water Works reinforce digging safety rules following two August deaths

benw@ledger-enquirer.comSeptember 15, 2013 

ROBIN TRIMARCHI/rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.comA Columbus Water Works crew works in a 7-foot deep trench to replace a section of pipe on Dell Drive Friday. Water Works and Public Services have reinforced safety rules for digging after the August deaths of two trench workers.

ROBIN TRIMARCHI — rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.com Buy Photo

Two city agencies with extensive digging operations have reinforced safety standards after two Columbus men died Aug. 26 when a 18-foot deep trench collapsed at the Summit Pointe Apartments on Williams Road.

"We have reviewed all our digging safety rules and did some retraining actually before this happened," said Pat Biegler, director of Public Services for the Columbus Consolidated Government. "We've been evaluating our operations and we need some more trench boxes."

No trench boxes were at the work site when James Jackson, 50, and Allen Thomas, 46, died while working as independent contractors with Allen Development Company. The aluminum or steel boxes are considered standard equipment for trenching operations more than 5-feet deep to keep soil from collapsing on workers.

With much of their work deep beneath the asphalt, the Storm Water Division of Public Services and Field Services at the Columbus Water Works focus on safety as crews dig holes daily in neighborhoods throughout the city.

Biegler said the division has a couple of trench boxes but workers need different sizes.

"It's something that we were aware of but this just brings home how important it is and that things can happen," she said.

Biegler said crews won't dig if they don't have the boxes.

"I can tell you that," she said. "To give us more flexibility I would like to have more. I would say we are going to want two more boxes."

To secure the additional equipment, Biegler hopes the division can qualify for a safety grant.

Jeremy Cummings, manager of Field Services at the Water Works, said the division with 89 employees digs 12 to 15 holes a day. To ensure workers' safety, a trench and excavation safety policy is followed with all the rules and guidelines when it comes to excavation.

"Part of that policy states that we are going to adhere to Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirements when it comes to having a competent person on the site," Cummings said. "In layman's terms, a competent person is someone who has been trained in trenching safety."

After the two workers died, Water Works employees met for what Cummings described as a safety call. "We reiterated the importance of trench excavation safety to our employees," he said.

Training plays a big role in keeping workers safe at job sites. Cummings said employees get hands-on training each year on excavation. A company from metro Atlanta focused on digging a trench, using the trench boxes and properly shoring walls at a site. "If we don't have the proper equipment, we will contact local rental companies that rent the equipment," Cummings said. "We get the equipment before we go into a dangerous situation."

Biegler and Cummings said key people are responsible for enforcing safety.

"We let the supervisors know that they are responsible for safety," she said.

In Public Services, a safety meeting is held every week and a safety review board considers action if someone did something the wrong way, Biegler said. "We take disciplinary actions," she said.

Whether it's a public or private operation, Biegler said, it is very easy to become complacent on safety.

"They have to be reminded regularly," she said. "I have a safety officer for Public Works. We work in areas that can be dangerous, including working in traffic. Some places are confined spaces, then we have excavation issues."

At each job site, Cummnings said there is at least one person trained on the hazards that workers may encounter. That person is aware of conditions with the soil.

"When you are in a hole, you look at the soil before you start digging," Cummings said. "If it starts sprinkling rain, it can change. If conditions change, additional equipment may be required. That is what a competent trained person entails."

The Water Works also has a safety coordinator who goes to work sites checking for anything out of order. Safety coordinator Serafin Cascalheira was in the 2000 block of Dell Drive where workers were seven feet below the street Friday repairing a broken sewer line. To fix the pipe, a worker was inside a steel trench box to keep the walls of the hole from collapsing.

"If I come out and something is wrong, I fix it or have them fix it," Cascalheira said. "They know, it's their life. I put it back on them. It's your life and this is our policy."

Workers are defying the odds if proper safety equipment is not used, he said.

"If you don't have any type of safety equipment, you are just asking for trouble," said Cascalheira, a retired Army master sergeant.

By not having the proper equipment at the Williams Road site, others workers trying to dig out the victims were in possible danger, said Robert Futrell, deputy chief of Columbus Fire & Emergency Medical Services. Futrell was part of the rescue team that took almost eight hours to recover the bodies.

Although initially reported as 12-feet deep, further investigation discovered that the bodies of Jackson and Thomas were found 18-feet deep. Fire Marshal Ricky Shores said the trench was 40-feet long and varied in width throughout.

"After the trench collapsed, we had workers that were still in the hole trying to dig the two men out," Futrell said. "We actually had to get them out of the trench before we could start working. We were telling them that it's a good chance you could have a secondary collapse and they would have been buried."

Futrell said the team called the Water Works for a trench box to help recover the buried workers. "We couldn't even start digging those guys out until we made the trench safe," he said. "That is why it took so long."

When it comes to safety, Cummings said it is a change in culture. "The culture is that everybody has a say when it comes to safety," Cummings said. "The apprentice, the lowest man on the totem pole, he's got a say if that doesn't look right. That is the culture we are trying to establish and maintain here."

Proper equipment could have made a difference for the workers who died.

"Deaths in trenches are so preventable if you use the right equipment," Futrell said.

Related stories:

OSHA investigating trench collapse at Summit Pointe Apartments

Circumstances of trench tragedy demand attention

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