The Buried Truth about Human Factors

In June of 1983 my life changed forever. I was 26 at the time. Like many 26-year-olds, my Sundays usually bled into my Mondays and going to bed at 2:30 in the morning only to leave for work at 5:30 a.m. was perfectly normal. The morning of my accident, I got an extra 20-minute nap in the passenger seat of the tractor-trailer rig that was hauling our excavator to the job site.

When I started in this work 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 waste time on you.”

SAFETY TRAINING:

  1. Hurry up and get the pipe buried in the trench before it buries you.
  2. The longer the trench is open, the more chance it’s going to cave in.
  3. 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.

Over the next seven years, I learned a lot. As the operator-foreman, I was responsible for training people. On the day of my accident, 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 we were working for that day decided to have his plumber supply the 4-inch pipe we needed for the job. My boss approved it on condition the pipe was delivered to the job site before we arrived; but when we got there that morning, the pipe hadn’t arrived yet. 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 and didn’t want to argue with them. I gave them the only 4-inch schedule 40 bend I had and some PVC glue. They 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. I jumped into the trench and slammed the pipe into the fitting.

Just as I was about to start scolding 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 caused an arch effect which provided a safe zone 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 ten 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 negative repercussions but this time I didn’t make it. I was caught at the edge of the trench collapse and was buried up to my armpits.

As the boys came running to help me, that original ten-minute safety training 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 needed to carefully dig me out with their hands instead.

As soon as I could move my legs, I scrambled to get out. Back in 1983, cell phones didn’t exist so my ambulance was a 1978 Chevy pickup. I was pretty sure I had a broken rib or two but figured I 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 internal bleeding that required surgery and my left kidney had to be removed. I had 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 worse than the physical. 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 10 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.


Joe Tantarelli is a Senior Safety Consultant with SafeStart® and a popular speaker at the Global Excavation Safety Conference and many other industry events.

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