Trench safety violations connected with a worker being buried alive result in large fine for Wenatchee fruit grower

June 18, 2024

TUMWATER — A Wenatchee fruit grower is facing $353,000 in fines for safety violations that led to a worker being buried alive in a trench collapse last fall in Othello.

Photographs obtained by the Washington Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) show multiple workers of Stemilt Ag Services LLC digging in a trench more than five feet deep and about 25-30 feet long without any type of cave-in protection such as sloping, shielding or shoring. 

A crew of 10 workers was repairing an irrigation pipe when a portion of the trench caved in on one of the workers, knocking him down and burying him. His co-workers were able to uncover his face after a couple of minutes to allow him to breathe while they dug for another 10 minutes to get him out of the trench. He was taken to the hospital with multiple crush injuries to his head, face, and body. 

“This could have easily ended in death, all because the employer chose to ignore rules to protect workers,” said Craig Blackwood, assistant director for L&I’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health. 

The injured worker, José Antonio Vera Álvarez, spoke with L&I about his traumatic experience and how he survived. “While the dirt was slowly covering me… I was yelling, help me! And that was it. Everything went dark,” said Vera Álvarez. “I don’t want this to happen to another coworker.” 

The complete video is available on L&I’s YouTube channel.

Multiple willful safety violations
L&I cited Stemilt in March with five willful serious violations in connection with the cave-in. There was no protective system inside the trench to prevent a collapse, and no ladder or way for the workers to get out of the trench within 25 feet of where they were working. The piles of dirt dug from the trench were not set back at least two feet away from the edge. Dirt piles too close to the trench can cause the walls to collapse.  

Also, there was no one onsite with the knowledge needed to inspect the trench before workers went into it, and no training program for trenching and excavation work. The company was also cited for changing the scene by filling in the trench after the cave-in before L&I inspectors arrived. 

Willful violations are among the most serious and mean the employer knew or should have known the safety requirements, but chose to ignore them. The company is appealing the new citation.

It’s not the first time Stemilt has been cited for trenching issues. The company was cited and fined nearly $17,000 in Quincy in 2021 for violating the same trenching safety rules. 

“We hope the latest fines will be the wake-up call that motivates Stemilt to keep their workers safe, before someone is killed,” said Blackwood. 

The company is now is now considered a severe violator and is subject to follow-up inspections to determine if the conditions still exist. 

Cave-ins are far from rare
Washington state has seen an increase in the number of trench collapses in the past few years. 

In February, a construction worker installing pipes at a Sammamish home had to be rescued after a trench he was working in collapsed. He survived, but was seriously injured. 

David Ameh and Demetrius Sellers were killed in a trench collapse July 4, 2022 in Shoreline while working on a sewer line. It happened again two months later in Renton, Sept. 7, 2022, when Surjit Gill was buried under thousands of pounds of soil when the walls of the 20-foot-deep trench he was working in collapsed, killing him. 

Across the U.S., excavation incidents killed 39 workers in 2022— the highest number since 2017.

Because of the continuing incidence of trench collapses, L&I joined a national program to increase enforcement presence at excavation work sites. Since January 2023, the agency has conducted more than 280 inspections of trenching and excavation sites, citing more than 250 businesses for health and safety violations.  

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

For media information:

Matt Ross, L&I Public Affairs, 360-706-4857.

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Photo obtained by L&I shows the irrigation pipe being repaired for Stemilt Ag Services before the trench collapse on Sept. 21, 2023.  

José Antonio Vera Álvarez was hospitalized with injuries to his face and body after he was buried in a trench collapse in Othello, Wash.