One thing I remember as a child was how much fun it was to play "Army." Like most kids, we knew that there were all sorts of unseen dangers out there in the back yard — and we knew that it was our job to mount the defenses that would protect home and hearth at all costs.
Of course, the very best defenses were those that were trench-based — perhaps in that little depression we discovered one day down by the creek. Even though it was only 11 feet long and barely 10 inches deep, it was certainly the trenchiest trench for miles. It took us all of four minutes to decide that it would be perfect for our base of operations.
So we toted ourselves down to the trench, set up our defenses, and lay in wait for the terrible threats that we knew were coming any minute. Mostly they came in the form of squirrels, rabbits and the occasional stray cat, but we weren't fooled. Not for a minute! We drove them away, one and all, from our secure base there in the trench — and when we finally got the call for supper we left our post knowing that the neighborhood was safe because we were on the job.
I found myself thinking again about trenches the other day while driving down a rural highway south of here. Along the highway a contractor was working on a pipe project — and bless his heart, he was doing things right. The sides of the trench were properly sloped. Heavy equipment was set back for safety. Trench shields protected the workers. Multiple ladders provided safe routes in and out. All was as it should be.
But sadly, in this industry, it's not always that way. Sometimes you'll see a trench that sends shivers up your spine. I'm sure you don't have such trenches on your own sites, but you know the kind I mean.
Sometimes, crews working in such trenches get away with it. Other times they don't. Trenches collapse, and people are trapped. Sometimes it ends with rescue — but other times the end is the recovery of a body instead.
Among those addressing excavation safety is the Georgia Utility Contractors Association, which recently sponsored a three-day trench rescue training program targeting firemen and others who might be involved in trench rescue operations.
"With the dangers of working in trenches and excavations becoming more apparent to construction workers, as well as to the public, GUCA is working to help educate and train county fire departments in trench rescue," says Vikki McReynolds, GUCA's executive director.
This workshop was born when Randy Williams of Randy Williams Grading, Inc., Temple, Ga., saw a need for trench rescue awareness and rescue training for fire and rescue personnel in his part of the state.
"Several years ago," Williams, says, "there was a trench cave-in in this part of the state." The next morning, he adds, the paper ran a photo of the rescue.
"In the photo I counted 11 firemen in the trench," Williams recalls, "with the trench still just as dangerous as it was when the cave-in occurred."
Williams acknowledges that it's human nature to want to help, and that's what prompted the rescuers to enter the very dangerous trench to help with the rescue effort.
"But those rescuers had no idea of the danger they were walking into," he says.
After seeing that photo, Williams recalls, "I got mad." He called the fire chief and told him in no uncertain terms about the danger those rescuers were unwittingly facing.
"Then I got to thinking about what we could do to prevent that kind of risk," he says. He decided that what was needed was training aimed at trench rescue personnel. So he contacted GUCA with the idea, and the training program at Williams' facility in Temple was the result.
The first course there was presented in 2004; since then, GUCA has sponsored other such courses there and at other locations around the state.
The course in Temple, made possible in part through a grant from the National Utility Contractors Association and by sponsors such as equipment distributor Tractor & Equipment, drew more than 60 fire department personnel. The first two days centered on classroom discussion of trench safety issues. But then came day three— an entire day spent demonstrating various rescue scenarios and techniques through the use of actual trench rescue simulations.
"The response was great," Williams says, adding, "Some of the chiefs even said to me that they wanted every one of their guys to go through a class like this."
"Expertise is essential when working to rescue a trapped person," GUCA's McReynolds says, noting that ill-informed rescuers often go on to become trapped or injured themselves. She adds, "Many cases of multiple accidents are the result of unqualified co-workers or untrained rescuers attempting to save the victim."
According to McReynolds, the goal of such training is to make sure that rescue personnel as well as utility contractors know what they need to know in order to be proactive — not only when rescues or recoveries must be made, but also before accidents even occur.
"We want fire departments and rescue personnel to help be the eyes and ears that promote trench safety," McReynolds says. "This kind of training helps bridge the gap between utility contractors and fire departments, and it is through educational efforts such as this that job sites in Georgia can become safer places to work."
So what's your role in all of this? Well, how about this:
This year, make it a priority for you and your employees to be 100-percent safe in the trenches — and do your part to make sure that the rescue folks who took that training over there in Temple, Ga., never need to use it in the real world.