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Trench Accidents and Safety Requirements

Research indicates that about 70 construction workers die each year from trench cave-ins. Most commonly, a worker is injured or killed when a trench collapses and buries the worker under dirt or debris. Construction is one of the most dangerous professions in America, responsible for 899 worker deaths in 2014.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines a trench as “a narrow underground excavation that is deeper than it is wide, and is no wider than 15 feet.” This means that some trenches can be much deeper than 15 feet, which poses a serious risk of fatal falls in addition to cave-ins.

Workers can also be harmed by hazardous conditions that come from being underground, including toxic environments, electrical accidents, gas line ruptures and water main breaks, the latter of which claimed the lives of two workers in Boston recently.

OSHA requires that all trench work be done with proper protections in place to prevent accidents and fatalities. They include the following regulations:

  • Unless the trench is built into a completely solid formation, such as solid rock, trenches 20 feet deep or greater require a protective system that is designed by a professional engineer and approved by another professional engineer

  • Protective systems may be implemented multiple ways:
    • Sloping – Cutting the trench wall at an angle, inclined away from the excavation area to enable a quick escape for workers in the event of any accident.

    • Shoring – Installing hydraulic or other types of sturdy support mechanisms to physically hold back the large volume of soil from movement and potential cave-ins.

    • Shielding – Using “trench boxes” or other supports to physically support soil and prevent cave-ins. A trench box is a sturdy apparatus that pushes outwards against both sides of the trench wall to prevent accidental cave-ins.

  • When designing protective measures, engineers must be wary of the type of soil, the depth of the trench, the water content of the soil, weather and climate changes during construction, added weight on the trench from ongoing work happening below and other activity in the area of the trench such as traffic patterns and subway activity.

  • A trench must be inspected daily and after any conditions have changed by a “competent person” prior to any construction worker setting foot in a trench. A competent person must be able to identify any existing or predictable hazards in the construction area and be able to take action if any hazardous conditions are found

  • Heavy equipment is prohibited from use near the edges of a trench

  • All workers must know where underground utilities are located near the worksite at all times

  • Inspectors must test oxygen levels and for any hazardous fumes or toxic gases underground

Trench work is serious, and employers must recognize this

Some might argue that in a field as dangerous as constructions, accidents will simply just happen. This mentality is frightening, since most accidents are preventable with proper oversight, precaution and adherence to the rules and regulations.

Construction workers understand the risks that they take each day that they go to an active job site, but they also must place their inherent trust in their foremen and engineers who are required, by law, to do the ground work that ensures their safety before they put themselves in harm’s way. Every employer shoulders this huge responsibility, and any accidents that occur is rightfully their liability.

OSHA exists for a reason, and that reason is to protect workers from preventable deaths. The two workers that died in Boston may have been saved had there been proper safety precautions in place, or if there was more attention paid to where the water main lines were during their construction work. Unfortunately, this was not the case, and now their employers will have to bear that responsibility morally, if not legally as well.

At Altman & Altman LLP, we understand the crucial responsibilities that employers have to keep their workers safe. It is quite literally the difference between life and death when something inevitably goes wrong. If informed negligence or ignorant carelessness is the cause of any accident, we will never back down until the responsible party is brought to justice.

If you, or someone you love, has been injured in a construction accident involving trench work or any other type of work-related accident, call us today for a free consultation and find out what we can do to help ease the financial burden taken on by your injury. We do not collect a single dollar unless you are successful in your claim. Call us today at 617.492.3000 or toll-free at 800.481.6199. We are available 24/7.

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