Nebraska FACE Investigation 95NE040
August 14, 1995

Worker Buried in Trench Cave In


A 56-year-old male construction worker was fatally injured in a trench cave-in. The victim had dug the approximately 12 foot deep trench and was in the trench laying a water line. The trench was neither shored nor sloped. Backfill dirt caved in on the victim burying him under three feet of dirt. The victim was dug out by co-workers and emergency response personnel and was life flighted to a local hospital where he died five days late from the injuries he sustained.

The Nebraska Department of Labor (NDOL) investigator concluded that to prevent future similar occurrences, employers should:



The goal of the workplace investigation is to prevent work-related deaths or injuries in the future by a study of the working environment, the worker, the task the worker was performing, the tools the worker was using, and the role of management in controlling how these factors interact.

This report is generated and distributed solely for the purpose of providing current, relevant education to the community on methods to prevent occupational fatalities and injuries.



On June 29, 1995, at approximately 1:20 p.m., a 56-year-old construction worker died as a result of injuries he sustained in a trench cave-in at a new home construction site. The FACE investigator first learned of the incident from a TV newscast on the evening of June 29, 1995. The victim died on July 5, 1995 and the FACE investigator read this in the newspaper on July 6, 1995. The FACE investigator contacted the employer and made a site visit on July 7, 1995, and a later visit to the employer. Information for this report was obtained from the employer, OSHA, local emergency medical and sheriff's reports.

The employer is a construction company that specializes in precast concrete products, septic systems and installation of underground utilities. The company has been in business for 29 years and employs approximately 45 personnel. This is the first fatality in the history of the company. The company has a written safety program and an individual responsible for safety who has other primary duties. The company has written procedures for excavation, the task being performed at the time of the incident.



The victim, who had been employed by the company for 17 years, had just dug a trench at a new home construction site prior to the incident. This was the company's and the victim's first day on this particular job site. The trench had been dug next to the foundation of a new home to install a water pipe into the basement. According to police reports, the trench was approximately 12 feet deep, 2 feet wide at the bottom and 4 feet wide at the top. From photos it appeared to be approximately 8 feet long. The trench was filled in by the home contractor the evening of the incident. The victim was at the bottom of the trench feeding copper water pipe to an individual in the basement of the home. The co-worker in the basement was pulling the pipe the victim was feeding him into the basement. There was a period of about one minute when the co-worker did not hear any activity from the victim and was not able to talk to him. He went outside to see what was the matter. He discovered the walls of the excavation had collapsed and was concerned that the victim was still in the trench. He checked with other workers in the area to see if they had seen the victim. They said they hadn't and the co-worker immediately had someone call 911. There was quite a bit of noise at the time of the incident and no one actually heard or witnessed the incident. When they realized an individual was buried in the trench workers in the area began digging him out immediately. A worker in the area began digging a secondary trench adjacent to the victim for the rescuers to put dirt into. When the upper body of the victim was uncovered, a rescuer immediately began rescue breathing and heart massage. Rescue breathing and heart massage continued for about ten minutes until the victim was fully freed from the trench. The victim was then lifted out of the trench to emergency rescue personnel and later life flighted to a local hospital where he died five days later from injuries sustained in the cave-in.



The cause of death, as listed on the death certificate, was cardiac arrest as a consequence of suffocation.



Recommendation #1: Ensure each employee in an excavation is protected from cave-ins by an adequate protection system designed in accordance with 29 CFR 1926.652.

Discussion: Had adequate protection from cave-ins in accordance with 29 CFR 1926.652 been in use this fatality could have been prevented. It was reported by a laborer, on site at the time of the cave-in, that hydraulic shoring equipment was at the incident site but not used.


Recommendation #2: Ensure that excavations are inspected by a competent person (1) prior to start of work and as needed throughout a shift to look for evidence of any situation that could result in possible cave-in.

Discussion: Had an inspection, prior to work, as required by 29 CFR 1926.651(k)(1) been conducted by a competent person, the unsafe condition should have been identified and corrected prior to entering the trench.


Recommendation #3: Instruct employees on how to recognize and avoid hazardous conditions and on regulations applicable to the work environment in accordance with 29 CFR 1926.21(b)(2).

Discussion: Both the victim and his co-worker should have been aware of the hazardous condition of an unshored trench. The victim should not have placed himself in the unsafe environment. The employer indicated that the victim was aware of requirements and had in the past used proper shoring when digging trenches. The victim just chose not to follow required procedures this time.


Recommendation #4: Consider implementing a spot inspection program to ensure all employees are complying with safety requirements and develop and enforce consequences for noncompliance.

Discussion: To ensure safety program compliance, spot inspections by supervisor and management should be conducted regularly to verify proper procedures are being followed. Deterrent consequences should be established for non-compliance with safety requirements. To be effective these consequences must be enforced when violations are detected. An effective safety program should instill an attitude in both employer and employees that safety will never be compromised for expediency.



1. Office of the Federal Register, Code of Federal Regulations, Labor, 29 CFR, Part 1926.651 and 1926,652. July 1, 1994.

2. Office of the Federal Register, Code of Federal Regulations, Labor, 29 CFR, Part 1926.21. July 1, 1994.


1. Competent person: One who is capable of identifying existing and predictable hazards in the surroundings, or working conditions which are unsanitary, hazardous, or dangerous to employees, and who has the authorization to take prompt corrective measures to eliminate them.


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