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The cost of safety

We've had a tragic lesson this summer on how perilous construction can be -- how mistakes, or cost-cutting, or carelessness lead to loss of life and injury. Let's review: Six people died and 14 were injured

We've had a tragic lesson this summer on how perilous construction can be -- how mistakes, or cost-cutting, or carelessness lead to loss of life and injury. Let's review:

Six people died and 14 were injured when a Center City building collapsed on the Salvation Army Thrift Store at 22d and Market Streets on June 5.

A construction worker wound up at Temple Hospital  on July 11 when a steel beam fell at the the $137 million Science Education and Research Center now under construction at Temple's campus.

A gas explosion on Daly Street in South Philadelphia on July 29 sent the contractor, badly burned, to the hospital and destroyed homes in the area.

And on Wednesday, a man was injured in a fall at a construction site at 15th and Arch Streets in Center City.

How does do construction accidents happen and why do they happen so often?

Cost, said Vincent A. Gallagher, a former U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspector who now runs a workplace injury consulting company, Safety Research Inc. in Audubon. "Somebody is rolling the dice with other people's lives to save money," Gallagher said.

Check out this photo, which the Inquirer ran with a story about a union protest at  the Pier One construction site in Cherry Hill Tuesday, July 9. The union's beef was that this was a non-union job. But when Gallagher saw the picture that's not what he was thinking. "This is a widow-maker," he said.

The basic problem, as you can see by looking at the photo, Gallagher said, is that there is no protection to keep the trench from collapsing on the workers. The law, he said, is that any trench deeper than five feet must be protected, and it is especially important when the nearby ground is unstable due to rain or soil condition.

The typical job of running a sewer line from the street to a house might elicit a bid of $1,800 or one for $6,800. Big difference -- but, Gallagher said, it's the difference between a safe job and a dangerous one. That kind of gap provides a powerful incentive for taking shortcuts. Maybe nothing will happen...until it does. We've heard of no reports of accidents at this site.

There are basically three ways to protect workers in a trench and none of them are cheap. One way is to angle the trench so that the walls slant out 33 to 62 degrees, depending on the soil, instead of going straight up and down, as the walls on the left and in the back do in this photo. Another related method is a step or terrace approach, called benching, like the wall on the right. Both require more dirt to be removed from the ground and perhaps stored in dump trucks during the construction. Not cheap.

Another method is to shore the walls with wood. The trench walls are lined with wood sheets and the sheets are braced with thick beams that go across the trench at intervals. The wood is heavy and needs to be brought in in trucks and assembled. Again not cheap.

A third method is to use a mental trench box, which holds back the  walls the way the wood does, but comes prefabricated. It has to be trucked in; it has to be lowered in by crane. None of that can be done on a budget.

If it's a homeowner doing his own work, it's possible that the homeowner may not understand the risk or how to prevent it, Gallagher said. But when there's a contractor involved, and "when people get killed in these kinds of accidents, they aren't accidents." They are, he said, the result of an effort to be a low-bidder, because, it's the low-bidder that gets the job.

Gallagher said he had a friend who nearly died in a trench accident. The friend vowed that he'd never again do a construction trench job without shoring the walls. He even bought the wood. A year or two later, Gallagher asked him about it as they sat outside the man's home, sharing a meal. The man laughed. The picnic table they were using was made from the wood intended to make his own work safer.

When my colleague Barbara Boyer reported the union protest story, a Pier One spokeswoman said that construction was being handled by the developer. A Northern New Jersey company, identified as the contractor, did not respond to Boyer's request for a comment. We don't know whether the company responded to a low bid, or was the low bidder, or what their reasoning was in regards to the trench.

Two more points: Where does the blame actually lie? How often do customers make sure their jobs are being done safely? Think about the last time you had work done on your house. What did you know about the safety of the workers on your property?

Another point: Some bright engineer needs to design a low-cost way to shore a trench safely. Can't this problem be solved?