The U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL’s) Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced last week that a contractor in Colorado faces sentencing in a manslaughter case after trenching and excavation safety violations led to a fatality. In the 2021 incident, the contractor failed to provide required trench protection systems at a worksite in Breckinridge, Colorado. This ultimately led to a trench collapse that resulted in the death of a 23-year-old employee. Fatal workplace safety incidents can sometimes carry additional criminal charges, such as manslaughter. Often, serious violations and fatal incidents lead to significant penalties. In July, OSHA cited a contractor over $1 million for failing to provide fall protection.

Background of the Incident

While installing a residential sewer line at a worksite in Breckinridge, the employee suffered fatal injuries when the trench they were working in collapsed. OSHA inspectors determined that the contractor’s refusal to require proper safety equipment to protect workers contributed to the fatal trench collapse. Following an investigation, OSHA issued three willful citations against the company. The citations stated that the contractor failed to do the following:

  • ensure that a competent person inspected the trenching and excavation operation;
  • instruct employees on recognizing and avoiding unsafe conditions; and
  • have a trench protection system in place.

Additionally, OSHA issued one serious citation for not providing a safe means of egress within 25 lateral feet of employees working in a trench.

OSHA’s Trenching and Excavation Standards

OSHA maintains its trenching and excavation requirements under its Specific Excavation Requirements Standard 1926.651. Overall, the standard is intended to help prevent injury and death by setting requirements to control safety hazards present in excavation worksites. The applicable trenching standards for the excavation industry include the following requirements:

  • protective systems on trenches deeper than five feet;
  • daily inspections of excavations by a competent person; and
  • means of egress in trench excavations that are four feet or more in-depth so as to require no more than 25 feet of lateral travel for employees.

Effective in 2018, OSHA also maintains its National Emphasis Program (NEP) on Trenching and Excavation. The purpose of this NEP is to identify and reduce hazards likely to cause injuries or fatalities during such operations.

Penalties and Manslaughter Charge

After the DOL opened a criminal referral against the contractor, the contractor plead guilty to manslaughter charges. The contractor is currently awaiting sentencing. For the trenching and excavation violations, OSHA proposed $449,583 in penalties. Additionally, OSHA placed the contractor in its Severe Violator Enforcement Program. Since the citations, the contractor and their company have closed operations. They have also agreed not to hold an ownership, leadership, or management role in any future trenching and excavation operation or any role that oversees workplace safety and health.