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Can you rely on your boss to keep you safe in a trench?

Any construction site can pose life-threatening hazards, and only if you are aware of the potential dangers, can you identify them and take precautions to avoid injury. Some of the most hazardous areas on any construction site are trenches and excavations. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration provides strict guidelines and regulations that could prevent trench accidents.

Unfortunately, some Pennsylvania employers may try to avoid the cost of trench boxes or other safeguards to the detriment of you and your co-workers. An excavation is a cavity, depression or a cut into the surface of the earth made by man or machine. A trench is an excavation, and the depth of it is typically greater than its width, with a maximum width of 15 feet.

What are the most significant risks in excavations?

Collapses of the walls of trenches are the biggest risk. When a cave-in occurs, your chances of survival may be limited because the overwhelming mass of soil can cause asphyxiation. A falling load of materials could potentially strike you, and the atmospheres in deep trenches can sometimes be toxic. Incidents involving excavating equipment are also prevalent.

What are the available protective systems?

Designing a system to provide the necessary trench cave-in protection requires analysis of factors such as classification of the soil type, the intended depth of the excavation, the percentage of water content in the soil, expected weather conditions and the loads of materials that will be used. That information will determine the appropriate protective system, which can include one of the following:

  • Sloping: This process involves the cutting back of the wall of the trench by inclining the angle away from the depth of the excavation.
  • Shoring: The installation of hydraulic supports can prevent the movement of soil that might lead to a cave-in.
  • Shielding: A trench box can protect you from cave-ins by providing a box-type enclosure.

You have the right to refuse to enter an unprotected trench with a depth of five feet or more. Registered professionals must design protective systems for excavations that are deeper than 20 feet. As per OSHA regulations, a qualified individual must inspect the trench before every shift to identify dangerous, unsanitary or otherwise hazardous circumstances.

Entering and exiting trenches

OSHA also has specific regulations to protect you from harm when you enter or exit a trench. These include the need for ladders, ramps or steps to provide safe access and egress. Additional knowledge that may keep you safe in trenches includes the regulations about maintaining clear trench edges and carrying out atmospheric tests in deep trenches.

Despite following all of the above precautions, you might still suffer a work-related injury. Make sure you get the necessary medical care and report the incident to your employer. You will then have a deadline for filing a workers' compensation benefits claim, and you are free to secure legal counsel for support and guidance during this challenging time.

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