This op-ed also appeared in the Austin American-Statesman.
Jim Spencer, a gregarious bear of a man, was close to retirement when he suffocated at a Nebraska construction site in 2016. The 61-year-old plumber had been working in a trench, connecting a sewer line to a house. It was a job he’d performed countless times. But this time, a co-worker carelessly operating a backhoe near the trench loosened the unstable soil, instantly burying Spencer, who’d been on his knees. His wife, Cheryl, watched as the rescuers dug out his body, his beard caked in dirt.
I thought of Jim Spencer, whom I profiled in 2017, when I saw a recent press release from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration announcing an “alarming rise in trench-related fatalities.” OSHA said 22 workers had died in trench cave-ins during the first six months of this year, compared to 15 in all of 2021. The agency promised to do more than 1,000 impromptu trench inspections across the country.
All well and good. But OSHA and its state counterparts are so understaffed it’s hard to have confidence in this initiative. According to the AFL-CIO, there were only 1,719 federal and state workplace health and safety inspectors in fiscal year 2021, or one for every 81,427 workers. Even if employers are caught violating a rule — a very big “if” — they’ll likely pay a pittance relative to their profits. The median federal penalty for a fatal workplace accident last year was $9,573, the median state penalty $5,825.
Trench collapses are not an exotic new hazard. The Phoenicians protected builders of the Xerxes Canal in 480 B.C. by making sure the ditch was wider at the top than at the bottom. The modern method, required by OSHA, is to brace the sides of any trench deeper than five feet.
Some employers either disregard or are ignorant of the law, which is why fatal cave-ins keep happening. In June, 20-year-old Jimmy Lee Alvarado and 39-year-old Jose Vargas Ramirez died in an unprotected trench in Jarrell, Texas. Alvarado was the father of two, Ramirez the sole supporter of his parents in Mexico. The breath was crushed out of them by an avalanche of soil, which, depending on the type, can weigh up to 3,000 pounds per cubic yard.
These deaths, like Jim Spencer’s, were preventable. “If a worker is injured or killed in a trench, that’s no accident, it’s a crime — and it should be prosecuted,” Jessica Martinez, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, said in a statement the day after OSHA announced its inspection program. But that rarely happens. According to the AFL-CIO, only 115 worker-death cases have been criminally prosecuted since the Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed at the end of 1970. More than 427,000 workers died during that period, making for a prosecution rate of less than .03 percent.
And yet the impact of an on-the-job fatality is no less profound than that of a homicide. “When a worker dies of traumatic injury,” I wrote five years ago, “gloom spreads like a webbed crack on an ice-covered pond, reaching far beyond the immediate family to touch former colleagues, lifelong friends and — in Jim Spencer’s case — waitresses, convenience-store clerks and other strangers he routinely engaged in conversation …” Jim’s wife told me he had a soft spot for children and dogs and could fix almost anything. He was 6 feet, 2 inches tall and weighed 220 pounds. “He was kind of like a big, old teddy bear,” Cheryl said.
We as a nation allotted $4.37 per worker last year to prevent occupational injuries, illnesses and deaths, the AFL-CIO calculated. That’s a little less than the cost of a venti latte at Starbucks. It’s a sad commentary on our priorities. We should do more — much more — to protect the men and women who keep our economy running.