'A Very Preventable Accident'

June 14, 1994

"This did not have to happen, this was a needless tragedy," sighed the fire department rescue worker as his team finally recovered the body of a construction foreman who was buried alive in a trench cave-in at Springfield Hospital Center last week. "A very preventable accident," another rescue officer said in dismay.

The dead man had years of construction experience; this was supposed to be his last job before retiring. He had reportedly been warned by a co-worker digging the trench to stay out of the unshored 10-foot pit. A movable box to protect workers in unshored excavations stood idle nearby.

The contractor at the Sykesville site had been warned by state inspectors two weeks earlier about safety violations in failing to shore up the sides of the ditch, while removing old underground steam distribution pipes at the state institution.

Just what prompted Frank Mercilliott to jump into the unprotected ditch to his doom is unclear. He might have taken the risk to retrieve a piece of welding equipment or to resume cutting a steam pipe. He had certainly seen the backhoe digging out dirt from the hole, a red flag to any trench worker.

The Maryland Occupational Safety and Health Office will investigate the incident. It can issue stiff fines to the contractor for violations. Because the walls of the trench were not shored or sloped according to code, because the protective box was not in use and because MOSH had been to the site for earlier alleged violations, there's a strong prima facie case against the construction firm.

But MOSH has done this before, sadly all too often before. And the needless deaths from construction accidents continue to occur.

Cave-ins are not only dangerous to the victim, but to the rescuers as well. Another worker on this project raced into the unstable pit in a futile effort to dig out Mr. Mercilliott with her hands; fortunately, she was not trapped by the shifting dirt.

Requirements for safety training and for available protective devices in trenching are on the books, but there is serious question as to how widely they are observed in the industry. Perhaps Maryland needs a law similar to that of California, where excavation projects must be registered and a competent supervisor certified on site.

Yes, trenching accidents are preventable and needless tragedies. They can happen in an unexpected instant. But repeated worker education coupled with strong regulatory control can help to limit these fatal lessons.

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