State investigates fatal trench collapse on N.C. State campus

Collapsed trench on NCSU campus buried worker in 3 feet of dirt

tmcdonald@newsobserver.comNovember 20, 2012 

RALEIGH

— State labor officials investigating the death of a construction worker who died Tuesday after becoming trapped in a trench on N.C. State University’s Centennial Campus will determine whether the man’s employer had equipment in place designed to prevent a cave-in.

Luis Javier Martinez, 39, was working in a four-foot trench when he was covered in about three feet of dirt, NCSU police Lt. David Kelly said.

“Part of that trench did collapse, and that is what buried him,” Kelly said.

The man was working for J.F. Wilkerson Contracting Co. of Morrisville installing a water line for the city, Kelly said. Other workers were with him at the time and called for help at about 12:30 p.m.

The man’s body was freed at about 2:18 p.m., Kelly said. The trench is at the edge of an intramural soccer field at the corner of Main Campus and Achievement drives.

Authorities have not released the man’s name while they work to notify his family. His body will be sent to the state medical examiner’s office to determine how he died.

Officials with the N.C. Occupational Health and Safety Division will determine whether J.F. Wilkerson followed safety standards that could have prevented the worker’s death, said Neal O’Briant, a spokesman for the state Department of Labor. The process will likely take three to four months, O’Briant said.

Earlier violations

In 2007, state labor inspectors found five serious violations at J.F. Wilkerson, including the absence of a “trench box,” designed to protect workers from cave-ins.

“The cave-in will hit the sides of the box and won’t go any further,” O’Briant said.

No injuries or fatalities were reported before the 2007 inspections.

The other violations that year included placing excavated soil or equipment too close to the edge of the trench and not having a stairway ladder or ramp in the trench that would have allowed workers to safely exit.

The state fined the company $7,175, O’Briant said.

OSHA has targeted the excavation industry as one with a high number of injuries, and the agency typically requires companies to undergo special training to protect workers. The program has been in existence for about a decade, O’Briant said.

North Carolina is one of 12 states where the number of workers killed by trench cave-ins is lower than the national average. The last time a worker died as a result of a trench cave-in in North Carolina was Dec. 24, 2009, in Lawndale, west of Gastonia. The most recent cave-in that injured a worker was May 16 in Rosman, in Transylvania County.

Investigators from NCSU and the Raleigh fire department will assist the state Labor Department. In addition to the trench box, labor officials will investigate if the site had safety exits, whether vibrations from machinery and traffic caused the cave-in and if the slope of the trench was appropriate for the type of soil.

McDonald: 919-829-4533

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