HUNTSVILLE, ALA—Federal regulators are suing a Huntsville, Alabama-based house-moving company for allegedly firing one of its workers when he refused to enter a 15-foot deep trench because it was inadequately protected against cave-ins.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports that DKS Structural Services, a company that specializes in structural relocation, foundation repair, and leveling, ordered an employee to work in trenches that ranged from 6 to 15 feet deep at a Huntsville worksite. The walls of one trench, measuring about 15 feet deep, began to slide and cave in, breaking the ladder that was used to get into and out of the trench. After the ladder broke, a company supervisor directed the worker to enter the collapsing ditch by being lowered in a backhoe’s bucket.
The worker said that he did not want to go back into the deep trench without proper protection from further cave-ins, allegedly prompting the employer to tell him to “get in the hole or go home.” The worker refused to be lowered into the collapsing trench and was fired.
OSHA conducted an investigation of the worksite after the worker filed a complaint. During its inspection, OSHA uncovered four safety violations, two willful and two serious, related to excavation and personal protective equipment standards. Additionally, OSHA determined the company had “unlawfully and intentionally terminated the worker for engaging in activity protected by Section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which prohibits retaliation against employees who report or refuse to work in unsafe conditions.”
OSHA standards require that all trenches and excavations 5 feet or deeper be protected against collapse. According to OSHA, unprotected trench collapses cause dozens of fatalities and hundreds of injuries each year, and the fatality rate for excavation work is 112 percent higher than the rate for general construction.
While cave-ins are generally the most-feared trenching hazard, other potentially fatal hazards exist, including asphyxiation due to lack of oxygen in a confined space, inhalation of toxic fumes, and drowning. Fatal electrocution or explosions also can occur when workers contact underground utilities.
OSHA proposed $122,400 in fines for the safety violations. Additionally, its lawsuit seeks back wages, interest, and compensatory and punitive damages for the employee. The lawsuit also requests that the employee’s personnel records be cleared with respect to the case.
“When an employer fails to correct a hazardous condition, workers have the right to refuse to enter an unsafe area without fearing retaliation,” said Cindy Coe, OSHA’s regional administrator in Atlanta. “Employers violating this basic right will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”