THE REPORTS COME IN WITH AN almost numbing regularity.

Gilbertsville, Pa., April 2004: Two men are running a sewer pipe to a home when the trench wall splits off and buries them. Forty-three-year-old Brian Bealer dies in the trench; after three hours, rescuers free 42-year-old Gary Vroman, Bealer's longtime friend and co-worker. From his hospital bed, Vroman tells reporters that losing his friend is “really tough.” (Reading Eagle)

Newark, Ohio, July 2004: Forty-year-old plumber Gary Dillon, working on a residential sewer hookup, is buried in 4 feet of earth. A coroner's report says the man died instantly from “blunt force injury to the head.” Seeing no shoring or benching in the trench, OSHA starts an investigation. (Columbus Dispatch)

Knox County, Tenn., September 2004: Fifty-two-year-old Ed Kimbell, co-owner of a construction company, is buried by loose soil in a 23-foot-deep trench for storm drains at a new subdivision. His son and another employee are unable to free him; rescue workers take several hours to recover the body. OSHA fines the company $8,000 for several violations but says a misjudgment of the risk, not the violations, caused the fatality. Kimbell's surviving co-owner, a friend for more than 25 years, tells a reporter that Kimbell was “a wonderful person.” (Knoxville News-Sentinel)

New Rochelle, N.Y., April 2005: Fifty-nine-year-old Thore Christensen is buried in a trench collapse while connecting a sewer line to a house. A self-employed subcontractor on the site, Christensen may not fall under OSHA regulations. But city officials charge the prime contractor on the site with permit violations. (Westchester Journal-News)

RISING TIDE OF RISK As home building has taken off in a red-hot market, so too have residential trench accidents. Foundation excavation and trenching for sewer hookups create a risk on virtually every home construction site. Unfortunately, say experts, the vast majority of residential dirt work is performed without regard for OSHA rules and without any meaningful protection for workers in the hole.

In the Kansas City, Mo., area where he operates, foundation contractor Dan Bromley says, “the big danger is residential sewers. The big guys doing sewer work on commercial jobs are usually out there shoring and that sort of thing. But residential guys—they just come out, dig a trench, and slap it in there. It seems like we have a plumber killed every year in this area. I don't know why they aren't following the rules. It's just crazy.”

OSHA TRIGGER: By law, trenches deeper than 4 feet require benching, shoring, or a trench box. On site, however, the rules are often ignored.
OSHA TRIGGER: By law, trenches deeper than 4 feet require benching, shoring, or a trench box. On site, however, the rules are often ignored.

Foundation work has also caused fatalities in the vicinity, Bromley notes. In one case, collapsing soil pushed a waterproofing worker up against a residential basement wall: “Dirt came off and hit him and knocked a snap tie through the back of his skull,” says Bromley. “Then another time, a man was working by himself on a commercial job, and he got buried from the waist down. It crushed his pelvis, and he bled to death internally.”

OSHA offices investigate so many fatal trench collapses that they're ready with canned phrasing for their press releases: “The walls of an excavation can collapse suddenly and with great force, stunning and burying workers beneath tons of soil before they have a chance to react or escape.” For contractors and their employees working below grade, death is like a silent partner who never calls: When he wants his cut, he just shows up.

CONSEQUENCES PILE UP No type of accident is more traumatic and potentially more devastating to a business than a trench fatality. On the day it happens, the immediate event can be uniquely agonizing. Co-workers and employees of other contractors on the site—often relatives of the victim—work frantically, and often in vain, to extricate the victim before he suffocates. Their lack of training places them at risk: Would-be rescuers entering an unstable trench can easily become victims themselves. Also, unskilled attempts to save a victim using a backhoe or excavator are likely to kill the trapped worker instead.