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Special Investigators - Season 2 Episode 2 - Trench Collapse

A contractor is trapped in a deep hole at a residential driveway and rescue services are working to reach him. Department of Labour inspector Tracy Colby is called to the scene.

Tracy, who has been in the building trade almost all his working life before joining the Department, finds out from the rescue workers that the worker was in the hole when one side collapsed.

The hole is too dangerous for rescuers to be able to get to the victim immediately. There is also an acute danger of further collapse, made worse by waterlogged earth.

A section of large metal piping is brought in to shore up the excavation. It is lowered into the hole to provide a safe haven for rescuers. It’s the kind of shoring Tracy believes the victim or the company should have installed before anyone entered the hole.

Six gruelling hours on, the worker is finally rescued.

Days after the incident, Tracy and colleague John Lasenby establish through interviews that the victim had been searching for a lost drill bit worth over $5,000 when he became stuck in the hole.

The victim began his search with a shovel, then a small digger, and finally a big digger. The hole got deeper and finally collapsed.

Tracy and his colleague John conclude that the earthmoving company – Eban Norman Earthmovers Ltd – breached the requirement of the Health and Safety in Employment Act that “no action or inaction harms any other person.”

The inspectors establish that the digger driver knew the victim was entering the hole and reported his concerns to his boss, yet the company continued to cooperate in deepening the hole.

Whist Eban Norman Earthmovers didn't have control of the site, they did have control over their digger. Therefore the practicable step they should have taken was to stop the job and stop digging the hole deeper after it became clear that the client was getting into the hole to look for his buried tool.

Eban Norman Earthmovers are prosecuted. The company pleads not guilty, claiming the victim did not take heed of anyone’s warnings about the hazards he was exposing himself to.

After acknowledging mitigating factors, including the company’s remorse and good safety record, the judge fines them $12,000.

The hope is that the conviction will remind employers of the importance of safe work practices, and send a message to employees that they not only have a right but are obliged to stop work if a job isn’t safe.