Season 1, Session 7: Six Steps To Avoid Trench Cave-Ins with Ditch Digger Extraordinaire Brad Barringer

BRSIncSession 007 of “In The Dig” show is dedicated to the families of those who have died in excavation cave-in accidents. Particularly the three men featured in this podcast.  Oscar Portillo,  Selvan Zelaya and in an accident many years earlier, Barnett Reeves.

Oscar Portillo,  Selvan Zelaya recently lost their lives in a trench cave-in in Boonton New Jersey while working in someones back yard installing a drain in an excavation over 12 ‘ deep.

These men, both had families who will forever mourn their loss. Portillo was even working on the job site with his son when the trench collapsed. REWIND…

Go back and reread that last sentence! This man’s son watched as his father and his friend were buried alive. I can not imagine the mental anguish, that must have caused!

OSHA (Occupational Health & Safety Administration) states that trenching deaths caused by cave-ins are completely preventable if employers follow OSHA’s excavation standards and provide protective systems making these deaths completely senseless by anyone’s standard.

Because of the senselessness of this accident, we here at ITD asked Brad Barringer of BRS Inc. to discuss his personal experience with a ditch rescue that took place approximately 46 years ago when Barnet (Shorty) Reeves lost his life after being rescued from a collapsed trench.

Brad knows a little bit about safe digging. He is the 2012 CGA Hall of Fame Award Recipient and runner up for the Association of General Contractors (AGC) National Safety Award. After the cave-in it changed his life and his dedication to safe digging.

“Shorty died in my arms on the way to the hospital.” stated Brad

Since the days when Shorty and Brad worked together, in 1968 the excavation community has become so much more safe than it was back then. Because of organizations like OSHA who work tirelessly to educate, and mandate safe practices that protect life and property during construction.

Listen as Brad shares his personal experience of trying to rescue Shorty and ultimately having to face his family to console them after he lost his life.

What happened to Shorty was definitely unfortunate, but we have learned so much from then until now.  Shorty didn’t die vain because the work place is much safer today than it was back then. 1968 was like the dark ages compared to what we know today about jobsite safety.

Unfortunately, none of what we’ve learned means anything at all if we neglect to implement the safe procedures. The accident may still be under investigation but the loss  is final.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, an average of 54 fatalities occur in the trenching and excavation industry each year, primarily from dangerous cave-ins.

Don’t assume you can survive a cave-in . One cubic yard of soil can weigh 3,000 pounds, according to the CDC. These men were all buried under 10-12 feet of soil. Even if their faces were not covered the shear weight and force of the soil would crutch your body breaking bones and causing internal damage (as in Shorty’s case).

Remember, even shallow trench cave-ins can cause serious injury. When 3,ooo lbs of force hits any part of you its like being run over with a truck. That kind of force has and will easily snap/crush your bones.

Brad reminds us about the importance of having a competent person onsite. However, safety is everyone’s responsibility and anyone working in this line of work should take personal responsibility to educate themselves about job site safety.

There are many opportunities for low cost or even free education through the various associations supporting our industry (i.e. AGC, CGA, Sate Dept. of Labor, NULCA etc.)


Competent Person resource:

Trench Fact Sheet resource:



  1. Keep heavy objects away from trench edges
  2. Move loose excavated soil at least two feet away from trench edges
  3. Remain aware of underground utilities and materials sources before and during an excavation project
  4. Test atmospheric conditions and potential hazards when digging more than four feet below surface
  5. Inspect trenches for water following storms
  6. Advise workers to be aware of work conditions, including working beneath raised loads and excavated material


Industry protective measures and systems
Although employee safety training and compliance are important for injury and fatality prevention, employers may also choose to utilize various protective systems, which can include:

Benching: Excavating horizontal levels or steps into the soil

Sloping: Cutting the soil and excavating walls at an angle inclined away from the trench

Shoring: Installing aluminum hydraulic supports that lessen the potential for soil movement

Shielding: Utilizing trench boxes and wall supports to reduce the likelihood of cave-ins

 If anyone ever asks or tells you to get into an unprotected hole four feet deep (or more) … Don’t do it! Your life depends on it.


It is extremely important that we learn from seasoned excavators like Brad and build accumulated knowledge everyone can benefit from. Brad shared these two Action Items to help keep us safe on the job.

First: Make sure that everyone on the job understands the present risks on the Job and be educated about the methods to avoid the dangers.

Second: Make sure you avoid slips, trips and fall hazards, posture when dragging pump hoses twists and turns that cause back sprains, proper lifting techniques and awareness about possible pinch/crush and caught-in-between scenarios.

For more information about safe excavation projects, Brad or his company may be reached 

B.R.S., Inc.
208 Hwy 49 North – P.O. Box 456
Richfield, North Carolina 28137
Office Phone: (704)463-1355