Alex Parker was 17 and working in a trench when the unthinkable happened.
The 6-foot-deep excavation collapsed on him and another worker, severely injuring both. Parker, with Parker Dirt ‘N’ Rock excavation company in Utah, is one of the lucky few who have survived a trench cave-in.
Sixteen years later, he is telling his story on The Dirt in the hopes that contractors and workers in the construction industry will learn from his experience.
Despite education and OSHA penalties, and the fact that they are highly preventable, trench collapses continue to kill and injure construction workers. In the first half of this year, 22 trench deaths were reported, already surpassing all of the trench fatalities reported in 2021.
This episode of The Dirt is a must-see for all who work in and around trenches and for those who care about these workers.
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In this episode:
00:00 - Intro: Why Trench Safety Matters
00:49 - Why Alex Shares His Trench Collapse Story
02:52 - Alex's Trench Collapse Story
04:52 - Why Trench Safety Should Always Be Considered
06:02 - Why a Trench Collapse Is So Dangerous
07:52 - The Long-Term Impacts of a Trench Collapse
11:42 - How to Survive a Trench Collapse
13:17 - Outro: Why the Industry Should Take Trench Safety Seriously
Hi everybody. Welcome back to Equipment World. You're watching The Dirt. I'm your host Bryan, and today we're here to talk about trench safety. And I know that's a topic that a lot of us in the industry like to roll our eyes at and we like to minimize. But at the same time, we have this weird dynamic with trench safety because we recognize it's important to a degree, but at the same time, we're all really experienced. We know what we're doing. We don't really need to consider trench safety.
Today we're going to talk about why that is not the truth. Today we are joined by Alex Parker of Parker Rock 'N’ Dirt, and he's going to tell us a very small amount about his experience, and then we're going to discuss why our attitudes in the industry regarding trench safety aren't necessarily as accurate as they should be.
So just to kind of fire things off so that the audience understands where you're coming from, it's my understanding you've been involved in a trench collapse situation before.
Alex Parker (00:58):
Yes. About 16 years ago, somewhere in there.
What did that motivate you to do? How has that changed your involvement with the industry on the conversation surrounding trench collapses?
Alex Parker (01:09):
For a long time, a lot of people knew about it, but they didn't know the whole story about it. And then two or three years ago, I woke up the day, it was like my 15 year anniversary, and I just started typing about the experience. It was kind of a PTSD thing. It was a therapeutic thing that I didn't know I needed. So then I started talking about it, posted about it, realized a lot of other people had been involved or had a friend who had done it. Some survived, some didn't.
I've had an involvement with a trench collapse situation, not directly, but I am one person removed. I knew the person that passed away in the trench collapse. Almost every single person that I know in the industry is at least one person away, if not directly involved with a trench collapse situation. We think we've got this thing handled and we really don't to the degree that we think we do.
Alex Parker (02:00):
It happens. It used to happen a lot in the past. It's gotten better with safety, but it still happens. I mean, I was just watching one up in Canada; there's a guy that was in a storm drain line. Water main ruptured, flooded the storm drain line. So it wasn't a trench collapse, but it was a safety that no one really thought about. And last I'd heard it had been almost 24 hours and they hadn't found the guy. So it went from get him out to try and recover the body at that point. And it's just safety needs to just be talked about a lot; brought up. And I share my story every year on my anniversary because if it helps one company or another, a couple companies or even just employees that are in the trenches say, Hey, I just read this dude's story. I don't want to get in that trench. I don't know what a safe trench is. Can we do a trench safety class.
Let me ask you this. In the situation you were involved in, did you guys think you had a handle on the situation up until you didn't?
Alex Parker (02:59):
Oh man. So without getting in depth of what happened, it was perfect scenario for a trench collapse, with two green employees, an operator who had just been promoted to an operator. I was 17, he was 19. We were fixing an emergency water line repair that had been leaking, ground was saturated. As we started to dig down the water line, we found a big two-inch fiber optic line right on top of it. So we went down the side of it. And this is one of the things that I want to try and emphasize with the industry is, a lot of the ground guys, unless they've been doing it a long time, they don't recognize what is native ground versus what is an existing trench. It creates a fault.
And so when that water line was put in and the fiber line was on top of it, it created a fault. Well, we dug on the opposite side of it, so we were like 95% down fixing. We banded it. We were like two torque bolts away from snapping off and being fixed, looked up on the opposite side where the old trench was for the water lines. That's where that fault came in on top of us.
That is why the trench caved in on us. I mean, we had two green guys. We didn't have a trench box. We were about six feet deep. It wasn't even slope. We were just straight down trying to get it fixed. But the ultimate factor was that fault that no one really talks about. So even when I get my guys in and we're in trench boxes, or even if we're digging the gas line to a house, lateral, and we're going to be down two and a half feet, but we cross over the power and I will clearly show them, that right there is the existing trench line. You know there's a power line below it. And we dig down, find the sand, find the line. But you can clearly see a trench that went through there. And that's the weak spot of the dirt. It's not locked in anymore. It's two sheer points and one just comes in.
There are so many factors that come into anytime you excavate an open trench into the earth. There are so many factors that come into play. And it's so easy to think, Oh, I totally know the conditions here. I've dug in conditions that are similar to this a thousand times before, never had an issue. This is rock hard ground. And another thing that occurred to me during your story is, you're six feet deep. I can't tell you the number of times in the industry I have dug a six foot deep trench going, Come on, we don't need to bring in trench boxes. We don't need to slope this thing. I mean, we're going to be in the hole for two minutes hooking up this water line. No big deal. But at the same time, four feet over, three feet over, totally unbeknownst to you, there might be an old trench.
Alex Parker (05:31):
There's no indication from the surface that that trench exists. It's not on any prints, it's not on any markings, yet here you are hollowing out this big opening to allow that to cave in on top of you.
Alex Parker (05:42):
And six foot is not deep.
Alex Parker (05:45):
No, no. I mean, especially when average person's 5'8" to 6'2", they're like, Oh, I see that height all day. I mean we're fine.
I was about to say if my head peaks about the top of the hole, we're okay, right.
Alex Parker (05:59):
Yeah, exactly. And what thing is people don't understand is the magnitude of the girth, the weight and pressure when it's moving. I can't remember the exact weight, but I was told when my accident happened, it was right around like 800 pounds to a thousand pounds per cubic foot is what it weighs when it's coming in on top of you.
Yeah, that's unbelievable.
Alex Parker (06:25):
So I broke my back. And without getting into depth, my dad was buried when I was 10. So he drilled into my head, one, don't get into an open trench. But I wasn't working with him, it was a smaller company while I was in high school. Two, if you're ever in a trench and it's caving in, jump as high as you can to get as close to the surface because if your head's one foot down, you won't get out of there for a couple minutes while they're shoveling. If you're six feet deep, then that's even longer you're without air and that's a matter of life or death. And so when I jumped, the trench caved in on top of me, buckled my spine, broke my back in two spots. The operator with me, he was in the trench when it caved in, he slipped and he was buried up to his neck. So he had a good probably two and a half feet of dirt on him by the time we got him taken off.
And this is another thing they don't really talk about. When your body is compressed, your body releases toxins. So when you get the dirt off, we got him out of the trench, he passed out. The toxins were released into his body.
Alex Parker (07:33):
I was in the hospital for a week and a half. He was in there for two and a half weeks; broke three ribs, a collarbone. One of those ribs punctured a lung. And it's a scary situation. I mean, just thinking about it all gets me anxiety and worked back up because I just don't ever want to see it.
Oh, I can imagine.
That's yet another aspect that people don't think about, is you've lived through a trench collapse, a pretty traumatic trench collapse. Would you say your life will ever be the same?
Alex Parker (09:18):
No, no. In multiple different ways. After our [inaudible 00:09:24], my back went out on me. I've got surgery scheduled January 6th right now because I got bulging disc pushing into my spinal column. I'm getting feeling back in my right leg. But a couple weeks ago, I was walking and it just went numb. And they said it could be permanent muscle loss and damage. So we're doing physical therapy twice a week. I have it scheduled here in about four hours, to try and get it back.
Prior to that, the last two and a half years I go to a chiropractor once a month. My muscles are scarred, so it's snowing right now. Yesterday when the storm was rolling in, the barometric pressure changes rapidly, reeks havoc on my back muscles. They just tighten up. I see a special trauma masseuse once a month to get my muscles to relax when they're really bad. I mean, my life will never be the same. And I was able to, in theory, walk out of the hospital a week and a half later.
And I was about to say, that's really focusing on the physical aspects. From the mental aspect, I can only imagine the stuff that you've been dealing with and will continue to deal with for the rest of your life. There's no moving past that.
Alex Parker (10:33):
No. At moments, my wife will catch me at night because I go to bed pretty early and she'll stay up, she'll catch me shaking or whatever and she'll wake me up and then I'm up the rest of the night. She'll be like, What were you dreaming about? And there's just random moments where it'll pop back in my head of being in a trench. I don't have the same situation pop back up. But there'll be moments where I'll be in the dream in a trench fixing a water line and all of a sudden you hear very loud bang come across the trench box. Because if you've been in the trench box, you've heard that before, that will trigger something. Yeah, there's the mental aspect of it.
And I tell my guys I wish to never have this on anybody, but at the same time I'm glad it happened to me because I can try and do good with it. At least at a minimum with our employees to teach them so that if they ever leave they can use my story and what I taught them about trenches and not to get in them, what to look for, all that kind of stuff.
So as we wrap this up, for new guys getting into the industry and for guys who are in the industry and feel like they got a good handle on this, what's the best piece of advice that you can give them? If you could speak directly to those guys and give them a gut check, what would it be?
Alex Parker (11:56):
One, kiss your kids, your wives, your family. Because you never know what the day's going to bring. Two, at a basic minimum, new guys, don't ever get into a trench more than four feet deep without a trench box.
So the two things I always tell my employees, if you ever in trench collapse, one, if you're completely buried in the process of trying to wrap your head around everything, try and create a void. Because that gives you just a little bit more to breathe. Two, breathing factor. Nobody thinks about this. When you got all this dirt on you and you exhale and inhale, you create a compression. And every time you breathe, it squeezes tighter and tighter and tighter on your body to where you can no longer inhale or exhale. And you're literally suffocating yourself. So I always tell my guys, create a void around your head and just take small breaths, don't breathe in heavy. Because as soon as you do that, the ground's going to come in and then you can't make your lungs expand because it's pressuring against you at give or take a thousand pounds.
Alex, thank you so much for being willing to talk about all this. I know this is hard, but the industry needs to hear it and I appreciate you doing it.
Alex Parker (13:11):
Well, I appreciate you having me on and letting me at least tell the story and trying to help at least change one life.
Well, I'd like to thank Alex again for coming on the show. As anyone who has ever been involved in a trench collapse, especially with the loss of life, this is not an easy subject to talk about. And it takes a lot of courage to come onto a public platform and talk freely about that. And I really do want to thank Alex for taking the opportunity to do that.
This is something that we just all have to recognize in the industry. Everyone thinks they have it under control until they don't go home. Everyone thinks that they know the soil condition's good enough and they can sneak in there and get that water line hooked up or get that sewer lead hooked up until they don't come home. So I do want to reiterate to everyone out there, be safe. Don't take chances, even if you think it makes you look silly.
So that being said, I hope this has been helpful and we'll catch you on the next episode of The Dirt.