Friday, June 23, 2000

Father of 2 dies in trench collapse

Safety practices at site criticized

By Jim Hannah
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Family member waits in ambulance as rescue workers work to free Larry Dale Stith's body.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
| ZOOM |
        HEBRON — A 32-year-old DeMossville man died Thursday morning in a cave-in at a Boone County construction site. His death is raising questions about the safety of the ditch and the construction practices that created it.

        Larry Dale Stith, married and the father of two, was laying pipe at the bottom of a 20- to 25-foot-deep trench about 11:30 a.m., when a side wall gave in, dropping a mass of dirt into the trench. Mr. Stith was pinned against a side wall when the other wall collapsed.

        A nearby construction worker tried to scoop him out with the shovel of a nearby excavator, but Mr. Stith had already suffocated, said Lt. Jack Banks, spokesman for the Boone County Police Department.

        The body remained trapped in the trench until it was safe for rescue crews to retrieve it seven hours later.

        About 50 rescue workers from the Hebron Fire Department and a regional technical rescue team — made up of members of Erlanger, Point Pleasant and Florence fire departments — joined the effort. At one point, a giant vacuum was called in to suck out dirt from the trench.

        Mr. Stith had worked as a pipelayer for Michels Construction in Fort Wright for five years. Family members gathered at the scene did not speak to the media.

        Michels workers had been laying sewer lines for an office park to be built near the corner of Conner Road and Ky. 237.

        Michels had subcontracted the sewer work for Paul Hemmer Construction Co., the developer.

        Investigators and construction workers said they wondered why the deep ditch did not appear to have supports to protect workers.

        There was nothing shoring up the trench, which was 8-10 feet wide, 20-25 feet deep, and 30 feet long, Lt. Banks said. No trench boxes, trench shields, braces or other equipment commonly used to shore up trenches were anywhere on the site, said Hebron Fire Capt. Jim Adams.

        Federal OSHA regulations call for trenches more than 5 feet deep to be supported with such specially engineered equipment or to be designed with wide, sloping walls, to prevent cave-ins.

        Lt. Banks said OSHA officials and the Kentucky fire marshal would investigate. An OSHA investigator was on the scene Thursday.

        Hemmer officials did not return phone calls to comment.

        Joe Michels, vice president of construction for Michels Construction, said, “We're cooperating with the authorities, but I can't say anything else right now.”

        OSHA officials and a pipefitters union spokesman said unsecured ditch digging is a common problem in the state and the region.

        Jim P. Higgins, a business agent with Pipefitters Union UA Local 392, in Over-the-Rhine, said demand for construction workers, especially in Boone County, is surging, prompting some contractors to bend safety rules and postpone safety training.

        Mr. Higgins said a veteran pipelayer would never voluntarily descend into a steep, narrow ditch without trench boxes or braces.

        “A company that sends the guy down without a trench box is in real disregard of human life,” he said.

        Although there have been instances of collapsing trenches in the Tristate in recent months, trench fatalities are rare, OSHA officials from Frankfort said.

        Last week, a Metropolitan Sewer District worker in Price Hill was trapped up to his waist for two hours. Fire officials said Walter Hall was protected by shoring on four sides in the 15-foot hole, but he had lifted the shoring on one side to gain access to a pipe and dirt poured in under it.

        Under OSHA guidelines, a company that violates trench safety rules could face fines ranging from $5,000 to $70,000, depending on the situation and severity.

        In rare cases, companies could be criminally prosecuted for fatal cave-ins, said Kembra Taylor, general counsel for the state's Labor Cabinet, which enforces OSHA regulations in Kentucky.


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