WA construction workers have died horrific deaths. These tragedies were preventable | Opinion

The trench box that would have saved Surjit Gill’s life stopped four feet short of the top of the trench he was working in — even though the additional equipment needed was sitting, unused, on the same Renton job site.

In Centralia, Jonathan Stringer was helping build a new wind energy project when he jumped into a collapsing trench to try to save a co-worker. His co-worker got out; Jonathan never did. The soil that buried him would have weighed about 3,000 pounds per cubic yard.

In Shoreline, the cave-in that buried David Ameh and Demetrius Sellers was so dangerous it took rescue workers nearly two days, using hand tools and a vacuum truck, to recover their bodies.

And in West Seattle, Harold Felton was sent to work in a trench that did not have required protections even though it had been raining for days, liquefying the soil and creating the textbook conditions for collapse.

These workers, and dozens of others nationwide, died preventable deaths on the job. Trenching, or excavation, is the process of digging on a work site, often to place or repair buried infrastructure. It’s a known hazard in the construction industry with well-established protections to keep workers safe from cave-ins.

Recently, there’s been a troubling national spike in trenching incidents, with the number of deaths increasing from 19 in 2021 to 35 last year. The numbers alone don’t do this story justice. For each of the workers who died in this horrible way, there are friends, families and coworkers living with the grief of losing someone who left for work one morning and never came home.

The Division of Occupational Safety and Health at the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) is responding to the wave of injuries and deaths by stepping up enforcement. In December, we joined a national program to increase our presence at excavation sites. When our inspectors see a trench, regardless of what brought them to the location that day, they inspect it.

Our enforcement efforts only get us part of the way. If you are in the construction industry, you know excavation and trenching are inherently dangerous. Not following requirements can mean the difference between life and death. The rules that would have saved these workers’ lives are well-known in the industry and have been in place for decades, because they work.

In Washington, any trench deeper than four feet must have protection like braced, sloped or benched walls, and workers must have an easy way to get in and out of the trench safely, like a ramp or ladder. The safety measures used are based on conditions on each job site, and the trench much be inspected every day by someone competent in evaluating trench safety.

These commonsense rules are straightforward, effective and easy to follow; they save lives. And, if an employer needs help, we offer free consultation. We’ve learned through tough conversations with too many grieving families that we cannot accept anything less from employers whenever their workers go into a trench.

No one pays a greater price than these workers and their families. However, for business owners who fail to follow the rules to keep their workers safe there can be significant consequences. AAA Contractors, the company Surjit Gill worked for, has been fined nearly half a million dollars. Where circumstances warrant it, we are working closely with local prosecutors to pursue criminal charges: Harold Felton’s employer, Phillip Numrich, was sentenced to jail last year.

It’s simple: trench caves-ins are preventable. These steps could be what determine whether a worker gets to go home to their family or not. There is no excuse for not taking them.

A workplace commitment to safety by employers and employees, combined with L&I’s enforcement, is the key to keeping Washington safe and working.

Joel Sacks was appointed Director of the Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) in January 2013 by Washington Governor Jay Inslee.