The Kentucky Labor Cabinet has cited Louisville Water Co. for violating trench-safety laws for the third time in four years, this time issuing a $84,000 fine for what the state agency called a “willful” disregard of the law.
The citations stem from a fire hydrant replacement job on Leman Drive on Jan. 16. An inspector for the Labor Cabinet, which enforces Kentucky Occupational Safety and Health laws, noted that workers were in a trench nearly 6½ feet deep with no wall cave-in protection and an insufficient ladder.
The state law requires an “adequate protective system” for trenches more than 5 feet deep and a ladder protruding at least 3 feet out of the trench.
The Labor Cabinet issued the citations on July 11. It fined Louisville Water $70,000 for the “willful” absence of trench cave-in protection and $7,000 each for two “serious” ladder infractions.
“In general,” said Jermaine Greene, a manager in the Labor Cabinet’s Compliance Division, “a willful is where OSHA determines that there was an intentional violation or just a plain indifference to the known standards that are out there.”
Kelley Dearing Smith, a spokeswoman for Louisville Water, said the company is contesting the citations.
“We had an employee in an open trench who wasn’t supposed to be,” she said. “Louisville Water puts a lot of emphasis on safety training and we’re contesting that citation based on the fact that the employee admitted that that wasn’t proper procedure for Louisville Water.”
The water company has had two previous run-ins with the Labor Cabinet over adherence to trench-safety laws. It paid a $4,500 fine for failing to protect a worker in a trench almost 6 feet deep in December 2010. It was fined $77,000 in March 2013 for a “repeat” violation in which a worker was seen in an unprotected 6-foot-deep ditch with standing water. (Correction: That fine was withdrawn a year later when the company agreed to improve its trench-safety practices and training.)
Between 2000 and 2009, 350 workers died in trench collapses in the United States, an average of 35 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Greene said the danger of working in a deep trench is greater than it might seem.
“If they survive the impact of the dirt, being trapped in that dirt acts in the same manner as a boa constrictor; every time you breathe in, it packs tighter and tighter, so even if they survive the impact of the dirt collapse, they get constricted to death,” he said. “We’ve seen people with just their leg buried, and they lost their leg.”
This story was reported by Louisville Public Media’s Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.
Reporter James McNair can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (502) 815-6543.
Correction: Because of incorrect information provided by the Kentucky Labor Cabinet, we reported that Louisville Water Co. was contesting a $77,000 fine in March 2013 for failing to provide trench protection for workers. That case was dismissed in April. The state agency dropped the case in exchange for assurances that Louisville Water would “have a trench box available for each crew” and would conduct bi-annual training for employees and supervisors regarding excavation hazards and protections.