Worker nearly buried alive in trench collapse

January 22, 2024

[New Zealand] A worker had to use his hands and a spade to dig his workmate free from 20 cubic metres of dirt when a trench they were excavating collapsed in the Waikato backblocks, in what WorkSafe says was a preventable incident.

Two workers were on the job at a farm near Te Kuiti in February 2021. One was operating a digger, and the other was doing measurements inside the trench, which was three metres deep and two metres wide. When one of the side walls gave way, one of the workers was engulfed, leaving only the top of his head visible.

The rescuer initially used his hands to clear the dirt away so the victim could breathe, and then used a spade until he could pull him out. The victim suffered a collapsed lung, a broken rib cage, a broken sternum, and a broken collarbone. He now also lives with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because of the incident.

The employer, R&L Drainage Limited, has now been sentenced for its health and safety failures. The company was found to have breached the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 and ordered to pay a fine of $275,000 and reparations of $45,000.

A WorkSafe investigation found on-site safety was of an extremely poor standard. The trench had been built with a flat floor and steep vertical sides, rather than shored up with shields or battered into a safe slope to keep the sides stable. There had also not been any geotechnical assessment of the site to check the soil stability before work began.

R&L Drainage did not have a safe system of work in place for the job, and did not provide enough information, training, or supervision to protect workers from the risk of a trench collapse. The company also did not notify WorkSafe, as required for any excavation deeper than 1.5 metres and when a worker is intended to be in the trench.

This is valid as of 22nd January 2024.

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