My accident (we’ll call it that for lack of a better term) happened in June 1983. I was 26. Like many 26-year-olds, my Sundays usually bled into Monday and going to bed at 2:30 am only to leave for work at 5:30 am was perfectly normal. Th at morning, I got an extra 20-minute nap in the passenger seat of the tractor-trailer rig that hauled our excavator to the job site.
My first safety orientation was straight to the point, “We hustle here, all day, every day. If you’re not a hustler, then go home now because there’s no way we can find the time to waste on you.”
- Hurry up and get the pipe buried in the trench before it buries you.
- The longer the trench is open, the more chance it’s going to cave in.
- If the trench caves in but doesn’t kill you, just hang tight because there’s going to be a second cave-in. And that second collapse is going to be more catastrophic than the first. It will take you out.
In the next seven years, I learned a lot. Now, as the operator-foreman, I was responsible for training people. On this particular day, I was working with two inexperienced 17-year-old laborers whose priorities did not include learning the trade.
In order to save money, the customer decided to have their plumber supply the 4-inch pipe for the job. My boss gave the approval on condition that the pipe was delivered to the job site before we arrived. But when we got there that morning, the pipe wasn’t. I was livid. I sped over to the site office trailer to tell the foreman we were leaving for another job that was actually ready for us because they obviously weren’t. After calming me down, the foreman assured me the pipe was on its way and would be ready when I needed it.
When the pipe finally arrived, my patience was already low. I didn’t have time for on-the-job training and my laborers were taking forever to make a decision on something. When I asked, they said they wanted to put a bend on the pipe. I knew from experience they didn’t need a bend but I was in a hurry didn’t want to argue with them. I give them the only 4-inch schedule 40 bend I had and some PVC glue. Th ey fumbled around trying to get it to affix to the fitting. I knew if the glue set they would end up losing it and I had no room for error so I yelled for them to get out of the way, jumped into the trench, and slammed that pipe into the fitting.
Just as I was about to scold them on how easy it was, I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye. 25-30 feet of trench wall was moving, and a collapse was imminent. I knew I needed to get to the very end of the trench because its configuration causes an arch effect which provides a safe cocoon in the event of trench failure. As I was turning to run, I realized both laborers were still in the trench with me and had no idea what was about to happen. The collapse of a 6’ X 4’ X 8’ trench can send 10 tons of soil crashing down on a person. Knowing all three of us were in harm’s way, I shoved both boys to safety against one end of the trench. I knew I would not make it safely to the same area so I turned to run to another safe spot. I had done this so many times before without any negative repercussions but this time I didn’t make it out. I was caught at the edge of the trench collapse and was buried to my armpits.
As the boys came running to help me, that 10-minute safety overview came back to me, “If the trench caves in but doesn’t kill you, just hang tight because there’s going to be a second cave-in. And that second collapse is going to be more catastrophic than the first. It will take you out.”
I struggled in and out of consciousness, knowing if I didn’t stay awake, I would die because those boys did not know how to help me. With every inhale the dirt got tighter around my chest and our only shovel was buried in the trench. One of the laborers grabbed my wrists to pull me out but I knew with the weight of a car on top of me, that would rip me apart. I yelled for him to stop and explained they should carefully dig me out with their hands instead. As soon as I could move my legs I scrambled to get out.
911 and cell phones didn’t exist back then, so my ambulance was a 1978 Chevy pickup. I was pretty sure that I had a broken rib or two but would be home for dinner. At the hospital I managed to take two or three steps towards the emergency room… and the next thing I knew I woke up hearing a nurse say, “He’s 60 over 40.” I knew blood pressure wasn’t supposed to be 60/40, so my initial diagnosis must have been a bit off and I probably wasn’t going home for dinner after all.
By the time the attending physician arrived, I had flatlined. My self-diagnosed broken rib was actually internal bleeding that required surgery and my left kidney had to be removed. I have three bulging discs near my sciatic nerve. Over the next 48 hours, I only remember the last excruciatingly painful 30 minutes of every four-hour interval because that was when the morphine wore off.
The emotional consequences, however, were the worst. You could set a clock by my screams from recurring nightmares, but that was nothing compared to the emotional damage to my family. Every time I left for work, they feared I was never coming back. If I was ten minutes late, they were in hysterics.
I was considered one of the safest operators in town. I was competent in my job. I had trained a lot of workers in safety. As the operator-foreman, my job was to stand up top and watch for signs of a trench failure. I knew the risks. So why did this happen to me? Human factors training made it click for me.
State of mind can greatly impact critical decision-making. I knew the hazards but wasn’t in tune with how complacency and state of mind can impact safety. I had a happy ending, but if I’d known how to prevent the errors caused by my mental state, this incident could have been avoided in the first place.
You may never get caught in a trench collapse, but the tasks of your job and the risks you face can still cause serious physical injuries and leave lasting emotional scars on you and your loved ones. My accident could have been prevented – and so can your future accident. Learn more about human factors training – it could save your life.