When you go out to lunch with Ron Chilton, you may not make it to the restaurant before he stops at a ditch on the side of the road. Because if Chilton passes by somebody working in a trench or ditch without the correct shoring in place, he can’t pass up an educational opportunity that might save somebody’s life.
National Trench Safety co-founder and chief accounting and corporate operations officer Shelly Bangerter recalls a recent lunch-hour diversion right near their main office.

“We look down and see a guy in a hard hat in a small trench and a guy in a backhoe right next to him right by the side of the road,” Bangerter says. “‘You could die,’ Ron shouts, ‘please get out of the hole.’ After a discussion the operator said they had no money in the job for shoring. Ron said, ‘I will send you free shoring, just get out of that trench.’ That’s the kind of person he is. We could have just driven by, but no! We stop and he tries to educate him and then sure enough, he gets on the phone and calls our branch guys and says ‘Get some equipment out here, this cannot happen.’”

NTS Ron ChiltonChilton, NTS’ CEO, sees the importance of educating the market. “Our biggest competitor is ignorance,” he says, estimating he makes spontaneous roadside stops a couple of times a month. “I travel a lot around the country and if I see somebody working at or near the side of the road, I just pull over and start talking to them. If need be, I will get somebody out there and I will give them some information. Sometimes they get mad and say ‘We didn’t call you, we didn’t ask for your information.’ I say ‘I understand that but you’re going to be calling somebody here pretty quick.’ Because usually an OSHA guy will be here or an ambulance will be here if you don’t get some shoring in that trench.”

NTS Gulf Coast district manager Gary Martin says there is a trench cave-in at least once a month just in the Houston area alone, and that far too many of them involve serious injuries or fatalities.

“It’s quite common,” Martin says. “Even though the OSHA standards are what they are, you still have contractors that will try to cheat and get by without the proper protection. And in this area of the state, if you dig down six feet, you’re going to hit water because of the saturation of the ground. It’s a big problem.”

National Trench Safety co-founder Shelly Bangerter“We don’t want anybody to die,” says Bangerter.  “It’s not about tattling, it’s about saving a life. We’re a safety company.”

Safety training is an ingrained part of the daily operations of NTS, a rental company that has the word safety in its name. From the daily training and trench safety education classes NTS offers at most of its branches, to the training it offers on the jobsite, the company emphasizes trench safety companywide on a 24/7 basis.

A couple of nights before a recent Christmas, in the middle of NTS’ Christmas party, one of the staff received a call about a trench cave-in in Richmond, Texas, a small city outside of Houston. Many of the staff, including Chilton, dropped what they were doing, mobilized the trench-rescue van, and headed out to support the fire department and rescue the trapped workers.

“It’s education, that’s why we spend so much time training,” says Chilton. “We’ve got three full-time trainers and two part-time trainers. We do OSHA Competent Person and Confined Space training, 10-hour programs, 30-hour programs; we do training in English and Spanish, trench rescue training, lockout tag-out training, crane training, forklift training, CPR training, flagger training and first-aid training. We do a lot of classes.”

The emphasis on training extends to the jobsite as well. “Our guys put in a lot of time on the excavation, fitting the correct product to the job, showing them how to install, making recommendations, working with our engineers and figuring out what things will work or won’t work for their particular application,” says Chilton.

NTS’ commitment to safety and training has led to ground-breaking innovations. One is the trench-rescue trailer, fitted inside with shelves and racks and equipped with everything needed for a rescue operation.

NTS Trench Rescue Trailer

“We do trench-rescue training for different fire departments and municipalities,” says Martin. “We actually go out in the field, we dig a trench, and we do scenarios where there’s a cave-in. We put a dummy down there as a victim and we actually go in there and teach people the proper way to do a trench rescue.”

Another NTS invention is its work zone safety system, an integrated, fully engineered solution to protect workers and the public in and around an excavation. The NTS Work Zone Safety System includes a modular fall protection hand-rail system, a ladder access and exit system, and a complete fall arrest and recovery davit arm device for workers in and around an excavation. [The product was the co-winner of RER’s 2012 Innovative Product Award — see December 2012 RER for more information.]

Bangerter tells another story that dates back to the very launch of the company.

NTS Tom Harman“We were meeting at my house during our first couple of days forming this company, and Tom Hartman and Wes Jones [NTS co-founders] got to the house before Ron did that morning and I had a pipe burst in the front yard. The city was there, they dug a hole, and a guy got in it. We look outside the window and there’s a guy in the hole. Tom went out of the house and said ‘Uh uh, get out of that hole.’ And the guy says ‘We’re only going to be in it for a minute.’ We started the educational process that day. Tom said, ‘You don’t understand, this is all disturbed soil, it’s likely to cave.’ We really do take safety seriously.”