A drainage company has been fined more than $300,000 after a Waikato worker was almost completed buried in a collapsed trench, leaving a workmate desperately trying to free him with his hands and a spade.

One of the workers had to “run for his life” after the excavation collapsed, according to WorkSafe.

Two workers were on the job at a farm near Te Kuiti in the February 2021 incident.

The employer, R&L Drainage Limited, has been ordered to pay $320,000 at Hamilton District Court today.

WorkSafe area investigation manager Paul West said the way the site was arranged ended up being a potential “death trap” for workers.

“This was a death trap and the victim literally had to run for his life. There’s a right way and a wrong way to do excavations – and cutting vertical sides to 3m deep then sending a worker in is certainly not the way,” he said in a media release.

“Anyone digging such a deep trench should be aware of the possibility of collapse and should take proper precautions. We know how to dig trenches safely – it’s not hard to take the necessary safety measures.”

During the incident, one person was operating a digger and the other was doing measurements inside the 3m-deep trench, when a side wall began to give way.

“One of the workers was then engulfed and covered by the dirt – leaving only the top of his head visible,” a WorkSafe spokesperson said.

“The rescuer initially used his hands to clear the dirt away so the victim could breathe, and then used a spade until he could pull him out.

“The victim suffered a collapsed lung, a broken rib cage, a broken sternum, and a broken collarbone. He now also lives with post-traumatic stress disorder because of the incident.”

A WorkSafe investigation found onsite safety was of an “extremely poor standard” with no geotechnical assessment to check the soil stability before work began.

R&L Drainage was charged under sections of the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, with a fine of $275,000 imposed and reparations of $45,000 ordered. The company was also charged under the Health and Safety in Employment Regulations.

West continued: “Although you might be working out of sight in a remote rural location, this should give you more reason than ever to play it safe and follow the well-established rules for this type of work.

“While victims can heal from their physical injuries, the mental toll can have a long-lasting impact on individuals and whānau – as it has in this case.”

A WorkSafe spokesperson said: “The trench had been built with a flat floor and steep vertical sides, rather than shored up with shields or battered into a safe slope to keep the sides stable.

“R&L Drainage did not have a safe system of work in place for the job, and did not provide enough information, training, or supervision to protect workers from the risk of a trench collapse.

“The company also did not notify WorkSafe, as required for any excavation deeper than 1.5m and when a worker is intended to be in the trench.”