The following is an abridgement of an article originally published on WorkSafe NZ.
A worker had to use his hands and a spade to dig his workmate free from a torrent of dirt when a trench they were excavating collapsed in rural New Zealand, in what WorkSafe says was a preventable incident.
Two workers were excavating a trench on a farm in February 2021. One was operating a digger, and the other was measuring the inside of the trench. While working, the trench sidewalls gave way causing one of the workers to become engulfed with only the top of his head visible. His colleague had to use his hands to dig away the dirt so the buried worker could breathe before using a spade until he could be pulled out.
As a result of the incident the victim suffered a collapsed lung, as well as a broken rib cage, sternum, and collarbone. He now lives with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to the incident.
The drainage company employer was sentenced for its health and safety failures. WorkSafe found that the onsite safety was extremely poor, with no safe system of work in place for the job.
WorkSafe’s investigation revealed that the trench was not built safely, and there was no geotechnical assessment of the site before work began. The company also failed to notify WorkSafe about the excavation, as required by law for any excavations deeper than 1.5m when a worker is intended to be in the trench.
WorkSafe’s area investigation manager, Paul West, says:
“There’s a right way and a wrong way to do excavations – and cutting vertical sides to three metres deep then sending a worker in is certainly not the way. This was a death trap and the victim literally had to run for his life."
“Anyone digging such a deep trench should be aware of the possibility of collapse and should take proper precautions. We know how to dig trenches safely – it’s not hard to take the necessary safety measures."
The company was sentenced at Hamilton District Court on 11 January 2024, with a fine of $275,000 imposed and reparations of $45,000 ordered. The company was charged under sections of the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 and the Health and Safety in Employment Regulations.
While physical injuries can heal, the mental toll can have a long-lasting impact.
“While victims can heal from their physical injuries, the mental toll can have a long-lasting impact on individuals and whānau – as it has in this case. WorkSafe expects employers to look after both the physical and mental wellbeing of their workers in the aftermath of any workplace incident,” says Paul West.
Worker nearly buried alive in trench collapse by WorkSafe NZ, 11th January, 2024.