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Trench Warfare: Fighting Against Deadly Cave-Ins and Underground Construction Hazards

Employers have a duty to minimize the risks to workers from construction site trenchesIf you’ve never seen the Michael Douglas, Brittany Murphy, and Sean Bean thriller, Don’t Say a Word, you’ve missed out on some excellent cinema. That said, you’ve also missed a dramatic visual representation of a horrific risk that construction workers face on a regular basis.

Without divulging too much of the movie—seriously, if you haven’t seen it, Netflix it tonight—toward the end of the film a character becomes trapped in a construction trench, and as he attempts to climb out of it, the walls buckle. As the supports give way, hundreds of pounds of dirt, rocks, and debris fill the trench and crush the helpless victim as they bury him alive.

Although this cinematic representation may be satisfying in the context of a film, collapsing trenches are a horrifying reality for construction workers who are forced to work within unstable ditches.

What Is a Trench?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines a trench as any narrow—less than 15 feet wide—underground excavation which is deeper than it is wide. For the purpose of construction, these elongated pits are dug to hold foundations, cradle pipes, and cables, and to provide drainage for buildings. A standard trench depth can be anywhere from three feet to fifty feet or more.

The Risk: Falling Into Trenches

When you read about workplace fall injuries, you probably picture a worker sustaining impact injuries as a result of a fall from a great height. However, what many people fail to realize is that a fall injury isn’t strictly limited to a person’s fall. When it comes to trench accidents, the fall injury occurs as a result of the walls of the trench falling on or toward a trapped worker.

Trench cave-ins cause more injuries and deaths than one would think, and if you work in construction, you know all too well how quickly these seemingly benign excavations can turn deadly.

Protecting Against Trench Cave-Ins

Trenches rely solely on external safety measures as dirt and rocks are removed and stabilized. Different soil types behave differently, and stability can often become compromised by varying water content, ground vibrations, and soil density. For trenches that are five feet deep or more, OSHA has set very strict safety standards that must be obeyed by construction employers and foremen. Depending on soil type and location of the trench, one of three safety systems must be used at all times:

  • Sloping. Sloping is a term used to describe the act of cutting back the trench wall at an angle to prevent the excessive weight of the wall from collapsing itself. These angles must be cut at an incline away from the excavated section, no steeper than the OSHA-approved ratio requirements for that specific soil.
  • Shoring. Shoring requires the installation of pneumatic or hydraulic supports to prevent loosened soil from shifting or spilling into the open area of the trench. Shoring can only be used in trenches that are less than 20 feet deep.
  • Shielding. The use of trench boxes to protect trench workers is known as shielding. This technique employs steel or metal supports attached to sidewalls that act as retaining walls to keep loose soil from rushing into the trench.

In addition to these safety systems, workers and employers alike can also protect against cave-in injuries by:

  • Providing easily accessible exit options. Ladders, stairs, and ropes should be placed every twenty feet or so along the trench to provide an easy and quick escape.
  • Maintaining a safe and well-maintained work area. Excess soil should be piled at least two feet away from the edge of the trench. Heavy equipment should also be placed far away from the edge to prevent soil collapse, vibration interference, and falling risks.
  • Securing safe conditions. Trenches should be inspected thoroughly by a competent engineer whenever necessary, prior to workers entering the site. Hazards that may necessitate a structural investigation include rainstorms, heavy vibrations, concentrated cave-ins, and deliberate sectional collapses.

If a trench’s failure to have proper safety measures directly related to your workplace injuries, you could be entitled to significant workers’ compensation benefits. The construction industry involves a wide spectrum of risky jobs. However, when it comes to work-related injuries, these risks must be measured against employers’ duty to make the jobsite as safe as possible. Attorney Steve Lee can help you find the balance needed to build a strong injury claim. Call our office today to see what we can do for you.


Steven M. Lee
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