Deadly gamble: North Dakota contractor supervised workers in unprotected trenches, failed 3 inspections in 32 days, ignored warnings, faces $505K in fines
MANDAN, ND ‒ Twice in 2022, the owner of a Mandan excavation company sat behind the controls of an excavator, supervising employees below as they installed municipal water lines in trenches as deep as 10 feet without protection against deadly collapses, federal workplace safety inspectors found. In 2022, trench collapses killed 39 workers, as thousands of pounds of soil and rocks crush or smother people in seconds.
For the seventh time in five years, inspectors with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration found Bowers Excavating LLC exposing employees to trench hazards. After opening three inspections within 32 days in Bismarck on Sept. 21, 2022 and Oct. 18, 2022 and Oct. 24, 2022 in Mandan, OSHA cited the company for three willful and four repeat violations, and one serious violation.
As a result of these inspections, OSHA assessed the excavating company $505,333 in proposed penalties. The company’s history of ignoring federal safety requirements for trench and excavation safety includes failed inspections at a Mandan worksite in 2021, and at three sites in Bismarck and one in Watford City in 2019.
“Since 2019, OSHA has repeatedly warned Bowers Excavating about the dangers of working in an unprotected trench. The idea that our inspectors found the company’s owner actively supervising employees as they worked without required protection at two worksites in 2022 is very troubling, and shows a callous disregard for human life,” said OSHA Regional Administrator Jennifer Rous in Denver.
OSHA found the company failed to use adequate protective systems, provide a safe means of entering and exiting the trenches, did not keep soil piles at least 2 feet from the edge of the trench to prevent materials from falling or rolling into the excavation, and failed to protect workers from the hazards related to water accumulating in trenches.
“Bowers Excavating LLC accepted contracts and then brazenly ignored federal safety requirements. This company is making a losing bet with their employees’ lives,” Rous added. “They must immediately develop and use a comprehensive safety and training program before tragedy strikes.”
OSHA has a national emphasis program on trenching and excavations. Trenching standards require protective systems on trenches deeper than 5 feet, and soil and other materials kept at least 2 feet from the edge of a trench. Additionally, trenches must be inspected by a competent person, be free of standing water and atmospheric hazards, and have a safe means of entering and exiting prior to allowing a worker to enter.
Each June, the National Utility Contractors Association recognizes Trench Safety Month. OSHA collaborates with the association for “Trench Safety Stand-Downs” throughout the month.