Irrigation district put workers at risk in dangerous trench, now facing substantial fines

May 10, 2023

TUMWATER — For the second time in a year, a South Central Washington irrigation district is facing stiff fines for not protecting workers from the dangers of trenching.

The Sunnyside Valley Irrigation District (SVID) delivers irrigation water to landowners in Yakima and Benton counties. The district is facing $168,000 in penalties for unsafe trenching practices — the same violations the Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) cited the district for last October.

L&I inspectors are responding to a national spike in worker deaths from trench and excavation cave-ins by increasing already strong enforcement efforts. Any time inspectors observe a trench, regardless of what brought them to a site initially, they conduct an inspection.

At an irrigation district job site in December, an L&I inspector found and photographed workers inside a trench deeper than 4 feet, with no safe way to get out and no protective box or shield to prevent a cave-in. There was also an excavated soil pile near the edge of the trench, adding weight and increasing the danger of collapse.

The employer removed the workers from the trench, but refused to give inspectors full access to the site. L&I returned with a warrant the next day, and opened the inspection, interviewing workers who had been in the trench the day the inspector observed the hazards.

“Unsafe trenches have killed dozens of workers across the United States in the last few years, including five here in Washington state,” said Craig Blackwood, assistant director for L&I’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health. “No one pays a higher price than the workers and their families, so when we find a trench that violates commonsense safety rules, we’re going to hold employers accountable.”

Trench cave-ins are particularly tragic because they are preventable. The safety rules that prevent cave-ins are straightforward, and simple: Any trench 4 feet or deeper must have protection like braced, sloped, or benched walls; and workers must have an easy way to get in and out of the trench safely, like a ramp or ladder.

The safety measures used are based on conditions on each job site, and the trench must be inspected every day by someone competent in evaluating trench safety.

Just last September, SVID was issued four serious citations for the same types of trenching violations. At the time, they were required to provide training for their workers on trenching safety.

“SVID told us they trained their workers and even hired a company to help them reduce injury claims, but here we are, just a couple of months later, citing them for the same problems,” said Blackwood.

In this most recent case, L&I cited the district with four willful serious violations. A willful violation is cited when a business owner or contractor intentionally ignores a hazard or rule. A violation is considered serious when a worker is exposed to a hazard that can cause injury or death.

As a result of L&I’s focus on trench safety enforcement, the irrigation district is now considered a severe violator and is subject to greater scrutiny. It is appealing the latest citation.

Penalty money paid in connection with a citation is placed in the workers’ compensation supplemental pension fund, helping workers who have been seriously injured and the families of those who have died on the job.

Visit L&I’s Trenching & Excavation topic page to learn more about trenching safety.                                               

For media information:

For media information: Matt Ross, L&I Public Affairs, 360-706-4857.

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