Buried Alive: Joe’s Story

trench protective system

OSHA requires every excavation 5 ft or more in depth to be protected by a trench protective system – sloping, shoring or shielding.

Buried alive. Alone. Screaming, but you know no one can hear. You wonder if the rescuers can get to you in time. You can’t move a muscle—not even your fingers. It is tough for you to breathe. And breathing is getting more difficult with each shallow breath because the dirt is crushing you. You have been doing this type of work for years and odds were that it would never happen to you. You may be asking yourself why you didn’t listen to the safety manager who told you never to go into an unprotected trench. And now as the last few minutes of your life pass you by, you think about your wife and kids, your parents and close friends and how much you would like to tell them you love them. But it is too late.

How Could This Happen?

The situation started off with someone yelling at Joe to look out because the trench was caving in, but it was too late. Joe didn’t have time to turn and run before the dirt in the trench wall fell and buried him. The crew was panicking and one of the workers jumped in the trench to help even though he knew not to do that. But was too late, there was nothing he could do and yelled for help to get out of the trench before it buried him too. But as he was climbing out, the other trench wall caved in too, just missing him.

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The workers called 911 and within 5 minutes the fire department’s rescue team was onsite making an assessment of what needed to be done to try to save Joe. It had been about 6 minutes, and they thought Joe had probably already passed out. The rescue team couldn’t use an excavator because it could tear Joe apart, so they had to dig by hand. They started to dig and shore the trench but it was a slow process. Time was critical. Firefighters from all around the county arrived to help, but they all knew situations like this are often fatal. The firemen knew that it would probably be a recovery, not a rescue, but they tried anyway.

The owner of the company arrived onsite and was very concerned about Joe. Unfortunately, it was late for him to take actions to keep Joe safe. He kept asking himself why he did not listen to his safety manager and provide a trench protective system (sloping, shoring, or shield) as required by OSHA. When OSHA showed up, it did not take long to figure out there was no competent person onsite and the company did not provide a trench protective system. The contractor and his company were facing huge penalties and possibly criminal charges.

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Don’t Let This Happen to You or Your Employees

Why would any worker take a chance of being buried? Workers should be trained and informed of the potential hazards and what they should do to protect themselves. There’s no reason that construction workers should have to their place lives on the line to install a pipe or cable. OSHA has implemented regulations for a reason. Employers must follow them.

Why would a company owner not insist that workers use trench protective systems whenever entering a trench? Trench protective systems are cheap to rent for companies that don’t need them every day. And if they are needed every day, the company should invest in the systems they need. Companies should also train their crew leaders and foremen to be competent persons so that they know the law and what is supposed to be done to protect workers from cave ins. Workers must be trained too.

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Time will tell what happens to the construction company’s owner, but in the meantime Joe is dead and the company owner will have to face the family to tell them the tragic news. This is something no one ever wants to do. It could all have been prevented if one of the three S’s – sloping, shoring or shielding – were used when Joe was in the trench.

Yes, this is a horrible story. But the story is real and explains what happens when a worker is buried in an unprotected trench. Even when workers are pulled from the trench collapse alive, they are seriously injured and, in many cases, will die from their injuries.

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Preventing Trench Fatalities and Injuries

Did you know that most trench fatalities occur in excavations, including trenchless, that are only 5- to 15-ft deep? They often occur where there is no trained competent person assigned to oversee the work to keep it safe.

OSHA requires employers to train all their workers about trench safety. In addition, employers are required to train and assign a competent person to every job that involves workers working in and around trenches and other excavations.

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OSHA requires every excavation 5 ft or more in depth to be protected by a trench protective system – sloping, shoring or shielding. In some states a protective system is required for excavations deeper than 4 ft. In any event, a trench protective system is required to protect workers. In addition, even when trenches are less than 4- or 5-ft deep a competent person must make a judgement call about whether or not it is safe to enter into the trench and then take appropriate action. If in doubt, the competent person should use a trench protective system to ensure workers are not injured or worse, killed in the trench.

Trench Safety Stand Down

This year NUCA, with the help of OSHA, will hold its third Trench Safety Stand Down from June 18-23. Last year the stand down reached out to more than 10,000 workers and this year we are aiming for as much participation as possible. Let’s see if we can double that number this year. All you have to do is take some time during the week to talk to your managers, supervisors, workers and crews about the importance of using trench protective systems and not entering into unprotected trenches or excavations even for a minute.

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The goal is to reach out to as many workers who work in and around trenches and other excavations to provide them with information about current excavation requirements and safety procedures for working in trenches. By reaching as many workers as possible, we can reduce the number of fatalities and serious injuries that occur each year in our industry, and make others, such as municipal and industrial workers who are exposed, aware of these serious hazards.

Anyone who is interested can join in spreading the word about trench safety. If you would like to participate, visit the NUCA website at www.nuca.com/tssd to find out how to become a participating organization and/or download training and other materials you can use for a stand-down. It’s free and, most importantly, you could save a person like Joe.


These types of situations happen more often than you may think. Trenches cave in frequently and workers are killed or seriously injured. If companies would only take the time to train workers and spend a few dollars, they could all be prevented.

George Kennedy is NUCA’s vice president of safety.

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