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OSHA Action to Confront Trench Fatalities is Vital

Friday, July 15, 2022
Press Contacts: 

Melissa Moriarty melissa@nationalcosh.org, 603.505.7135

Action by OSHA to Confront Trench Fatalities Is
“Vital for U.S. Workers,” says National COSH

22 preventable deaths so far 2022 exceeds 12-month total for previous years;
Employers must face criminal penalties if they ignore use known, effective methods to reduce risk

LOS ANGELES – Today’s announcement by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) of new efforts to protect workers from deadly trench collapses is “vital for U.S. workers” say leaders of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH).

“There is no reason – ever – for a worker to die unprotected in a trench collapse,” said National COSH co-executive director Jessica E. Martinez. “Workers have been building trenches for literally thousands of years. We know how to do it safely: Slope the trench at a safe angle, shore it up, or shield workers with appropriate safety equipment.”

“Any employer that doesn’t follow these well-established safety protocols is putting workers’ lives at risk,” said Martinez. “If a worker is injured or killed in a trench, that’s no accident, it’s a crime – and it should be prosecuted.”

OSHA announced today that it will respond to an alarming increase in fatalities due to trench collapses. The agency will perform more than 1,000 trench inspections nationwide, and “place additional emphasis on how agency officials evaluate penalties… including criminal referrals for federal or state prosecution to hold employers and others accountable when their actions or inactions kill workers or put their lives at risk.”

Twenty-two U.S. workers have died due to trench collapses in 2022, compared to 15 during the 12 months of 2021 and 18 during the 12 months of 2020.

“Fair and effective enforcement of safety laws is vital for U.S. workers,” said Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, also a co-executive director of National COSH. “Real consequences for harming workers – including prison time – can make a real difference, so that employers think twice before cutting corners on workplace safety.”

National COSH and its affiliate organizations have long advocated for strong measures when workers are killed or injured due to employer negligence, including several cases where workers died after preventable trench collapses.

  • Carlos’ Law, New York State: In 2015, Carlos Moncayo, a 22-year-old construction worker who immigrated to New York City from Ecuador, was killed in a preventable trench collapse. His employer, Harco Construction, was convicted of manslaughter but paid just $10,000 in fines, under state law at the time.  

    The New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH), played a leading role in a coalition effort to require tougher penalties. Seven years after Moncayo’s death, “Carlos’ Law” has passed the New York state legislature and awaits Gov. Kathy Hochul’s signature. It will increase minimum fines to $300,000 for misdemeanors and $500,000 for felonies cases involving workplace injuries or deaths.

 

  • Mattocks-Higgins Affidavit of Workplace Safety, Boston: In 2016, construction workers Kelvin Mattocks and Robert Higgins drowned after a preventable trench collapse at a Boston construction site. Their employer, Atlantic Drain, had a long history of safety violations.  

    In December 2016, with strong support from the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH), the Boston City Council passed a new ordinance requiring employers to complete the Mattocks-Higgins Affidavit of Workplace Safety, disclosing any past safety violations. The ordinance empowers the city to deny construction permits to unsafe employers. It was proposed by Marty Walsh, who was then mayor of Boston and is now the U.S. secretary of labor.

       
  • Criminal prosecution in Fairfax County, VA: In 2019, 16-year-old Spencer Lunde died after a preventable trench collapse at a construction site in Fairfax County, Virginia. Several National COSH affiliates – including Mid-State (NY) COSH, PhilaPOSH, the Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights, the Knox Area (TN) Workers’ Memorial Day Committee (Knoxville, TN) the Maine Labor Group on Health and Wisconsin COSH joined an appeal to Fairfax County Commonwealth Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh, calling for a criminal investigation into this incident.

    In November 2019, Thomas Digges, owner of the Digges Development Corporation, was indicted on charges stemming from Lunde’s death, including involuntary manslaughter and cruelty and injuries to children.

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National COSH links the efforts of local worker health and safety coalitions in communities across the United States, advocating for elimination of preventable hazards in the workplace. For more information, please visit NationalCOSH.org. Follow us at @NationalCOSH on Facebook, @NationalCOSH on Twitter, LinkedIn and @NationalCOSH on Instagram.