Construction sites sometimes have things going on that you don’t necessarily want featured on a website or a magazine no matter how responsible the contractor might be. It could be an unsafe trench, missing hard hats or safety glasses, or an ironworker that’s not tied off. The National Utility Contractors Association (NUCA) has designated June Trench Safety Month so let’s hone in on the importance of construction photography as it relates to safe excavations.
Allow me to set the stage. The repercussions of a trench collapse are gruesome and usually result in death or severe injuries. If gravity wins, thousands of tons of earth will either crush or bury the workers alive unless they manage to stay partially above grade. Photographing an unsafe trench not only sends the message that you don’t care about the safety of your team, but can also draw unwanted attention from OSHA.
A Valuable Lesson in Trench Safety
I learned this lesson the hard way in 1998. I was the editor of Constructioneer Magazine at the time. In my defense, I was in my early 20s – the youngest of 14 regional editors across the U.S. Not to mention, I was one of the top producers, working at a breakneck pace and cranking out an average of 17 pages of content for each of two monthly magazines.
The assignment was a job story for a project in State College, Pennsylvania involving mostly sitework, paving, and utilities. I had captured a close-up of two workers hooking a concrete pipe up to an excavator. The shot was so dynamic that it was an obvious choice for the cover.
A month or so later, a few concerned readers sent a letter to the editor and informed me that the photograph in question featured several OSHA violations. They weren’t safety directors by the way. These were pretty obscure rules that a young construction editor could easily miss: the proper sloping of trench walls; spacing of ladders for access and egress; and straddling of the excavation with equipment tracks.
Luckily, there were no repercussions for the contractor or yours truly. I was relieved about that, but embarrassed. Let me clarify that while I don’t condone the behavior, it wasn’t my job as a construction editor to violate that trust and bring it to light. That’s why we have OSHA. Let me add that the condition of the trench, while not in compliance, was not precarious and didn’t appear to present imminent danger to the workers.
I’m happy to say that it was a rookie mistake that was never repeated. It set the stage for my belief in the importance of construction safety, and also my focus on protecting Fraley Construction Marketing customers from liability, whether I’m taking the actual photo or simply posting it on social media or a website.
Mitigating Your Risk
This story illustrates the importance of exercising caution when retaining a photographer, or allowing a photographer onto your jobsite. The level of risk varies greatly depending on who’s behind the camera.
Understand that construction magazine editors and freelance stringers are your friends even if you’re not an advertiser. Their goal is to identify and create interesting editorial that promotes construction equipment, techniques, materials, technologies, and so on. With that said, there is always the possibility that they could capture a shot that causes you heartburn. Refer to my story if you need a reminder of how that might happen.
General photographers have no idea what an unsafe excavation looks like. Don’t bother trying to educate them unless you plan to retain them on a long-term basis. They cover too many industries to care about trench safety. The best bet is to make sure someone at your firm screens all photos before they get published or posted anywhere.
The local newspaper reporter won’t be taking close-up pictures of your excavation unless he or she is covering a trench collapse. Like general photographers, they have no clue what an unsafe excavation looks like. Unlike construction magazines, they have no loyalty to your company. In fact, their business model is to expose controversy. You can’t control what they capture on camera, so your only option is to either deny access or watch them like a hawk on your jobsite.
Most people in your company can probably look at a trench and determine that it’s not safe, but they most likely don’t know all of OSHA’s requirements. It’s also not their job to keep up with changes unless safety is among their duties. It’s a smart idea to run the photos past your safety director before putting them out there.
It’s not my intent to give you the tools to protect unsafe work practices. Trench safety is critical.
Let me share another story of an unsafe trench that was truly scary. I was photographing a retail construction project in western Pennsylvania. Two men were down inside a roughly 15-foot-deep trench guiding a section of RCP pipe into place with no more than a few inches of clearance on each shoulder. There was one ladder and it was far more than six feet away. The excavator tracks were framing the end of the trench. Chunks of dirt were literally falling from the walls. Gravity was begging to level the earth as it always does. I was genuinely concerned for these workers.
The best thing you can practice trench safety and photograph the proof. Doing so isn’t about compliance; it’s about demonstrating that you’re the kind of company that cares about its workers. Your customers understand that companies like this attract the best people and that translates into a better, safer project for them. There is no photographer that can make an unsafe trench (or your company) look good.
Have you ever seen a published photo of an unsafe trench? How did it affect your perception of the company?
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