Officials say safety device was not in use when a trench collapse killed a man near Breckenridge

A steel box, which is supposed to be used to support trench walls, was sitting outside the trench when emergency crews arrived on scene

Emergency crews are pictured Nov. 16 at Sallie Barber Road near Breckenridge, where a trench collapse killed 20-year-old Marlon Diaz and partially buried another individual who was rescued. The metal structure in the photo is a steel trench box, which is typically used to support the wall of a trench to keep it from caving in.
Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District/Courtesy photo

It’s been over three weeks since a trench collapse along Sallie Barber Road killed 20-year-old Marlon Diaz and partially buried another individual. Details about the incident remain scarce as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration takes on the investigation.

But one thing is clear: A steel box meant to protect workers from a trench collapse was not in use when emergency responders arrived at the scene Nov. 16.

Drew Hoehn, deputy chief of operations for the Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District, reported that when the district arrived at around 4:15 p.m., the steel trench box — used to support trench walls — was not in the trench but was sitting nearby the site. Hoehn said it appeared members of the crew were working in an unprotected hole during the time of the incident.

According to OSHA’s website, trenches 5 feet deep or greater require a protective system unless the excavation is made entirely in stable rock. Trenches 20 feet deep or greater require that the protective system be designed by a registered professional engineer.

Different protective systems available in this line of work are outlined on OSHA’s website, and one of those includes shielding measures, which protect workers by using trench boxes or other types of supports to prevent soil cave-ins.

Moses Alvarez, director of training for the Colorado Contractors Association, said most holes have a risk of collapsing and that these boxes are just one measure that can be used to keep a trench stable. Other methods include shoring, benching and shielding. It’s unknown whether any of these other methods were in place on the day of the incident.

Alvarez said a trench box is essentially used as a shield to protect crews. Once a hole is dug, the box is set inside the hole and acts as a safeguard. Though the use of the box takes a little extra time to set up and put into place, Alvarez noted it is required by OSHA.

“It’s a very simple activity, but it is also — at times — significantly more of a time consuming operation than it would be to not use it, and that’s where contractors or folks performing excavating and trenching operations feel that the speed of which they can do work without the trench box compensates for the need to not utilize it,” Alvarez said. “Obviously, that’s not correct because in the event that something happens, it’s needed — even if it takes longer to do the work.”

While on the scene, Hoehn observed that the steel box appeared to be wider than the trench crews were working in. Alvarez said if the hole was too small to use the trench box, then other methods, such as shoring, could be used instead. Shoring includes the use of rods to prop up the side of the hole and sometimes includes a sheathing of some sort for extra reinforcement.

Regardless of the method used to keep the walls of a hole stable, it’s critically important that something be done to keep crews protected as they work. Alvarez emphasized that dirt is heavy and that even a small amount can cause significant damage.

“The easiest way to understand how big (a cubic yard of dirt) is is that it’s about the size of a washing machine: about 3 feet tall, 3 feet wide and 3 feet deep,” Alvarez said. “A washing machine is heavy, but it’s not even comparable to dirt. One cubic yard of dirt typically can weigh close to 3,000 pounds. That’s an extremely large amount of weight, and generally speaking, we’re not digging holes that (small). We’re digging holes that are significantly larger than that.”

Questions about what safety protocols, if any, were in place remain unanswered, as does the training Diaz received before the incident occurred. The 20-year-old was from Honduras, and Alvarez said he wonders how much meaningful training Diaz received before he started work, especially if Spanish was his native language. Alvarez noted that it’s required by OSHA to give appropriate training in a language that the worker understands before beginning work.

“Marlon may have had no context to understand what hazard he was in because it may not have been explained in his native language,” Alvarez said.

Paul Camillo, a local contractor, said that in his experience, most contractors work with subcontractors to ensure that safety protocols are being met. Camillo is the owner of Anthony Ryan & Associates in Silverthorne and serves as vice president of the Summit County Builders Association’s executive committee.

“We go over what’s required and how they plan on doing it and what’s involved in it and what kind of equipment they’re going to use, and we talk about their safety and make sure no one gets hurt,” Camillo said. “That’s priority No. 1 in any job. There’s nothing worth somebody getting hurt over.”

Camillo said though incidents occur in the local industry from time to time, there’s few fatalities. To his knowledge, the last time there was a fatality was in 2017 when 20-year-old Cort Michael Dursey was killed after a rotomiller paving machine ran over him while backing up during resurfacing work on Colorado Highway 9.

At the time of the recent incident in November, A4S Construction, based out of Eagle County, was completing excavation work to install utilities for a new housing development on the site, called Trails at Berlin Placer. The development has been in the works since at least 2017 and once complete will feature 14 market-rate, single-family homes in addition to at least 20 affordable workforce housing units.

Summit County Coroner Regan Wood said her team is still waiting on the toxicology report to wrap up the autopsy on Diaz before the investigation can move forward. Though drugs and alcohol are not suspected to be involved, her team must complete a thorough report as it works with OSHA on the investigation. Wood said her office has heard little from OSHA’s Denver office, which is taking the lead on this case.

A representative of OSHA said information on the case would not be made available until after the investigation is complete. Wood said cases like this usually take months, if not close to a year, to reach any kind of investigative conclusion.

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