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How to prevent and avoid the many dangers of working in trenches

On Behalf of | Mar 25, 2018 | Workers' Compensation

How important is your safety to your employer? Do you receive training to teach you about the hazards of your job, how to recognize them and what precautions to take to avoid them? When it comes to trenches, some construction authorities say too many employers are ignorant of the applicable safety rules, and the pressures of deadlines along with the prioritizing of profit over safety cause the rise in the number of fatal trench collapses.

Furthermore, the inability of state and federal safety agencies to carry out sufficient inspections and enforce compliance may also play a role in the fact that trench-related fatalities almost doubled in 2016. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reportedly said this after comparing the number of 2016 cave-in deaths nationwide with the averages of the previous five years.

What is a trench?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration says any excavation that causes a cavity, cut or depression in the surface of the earth that is narrower than 15 feet and has a depth exceeding its width is a trench. If you work in such an excavation, you will probably face various risks, including hazardous atmosphere, loads falling from above, mobile equipment encounters and falling. The most common threat involves trench walls that can collapse, and because one cubic yard of soil can weigh up to 3,000 pounds, most cave-ins are fatal.

Federal safety regulations

OSHA prescribes strict safety regulations with which compliance is mandatory. If your employer disregards these rules and expects you to risk your life in an unprotected trench, you have the right to refuse. The following are some of the essential precautionary aspects to check before you enter a trench:

  • A qualified individual responsible for trench safety: Your employer must appoint a competent person to oversee trench safety. This individual must be able to identify any predictable or existing hazards or threatening and unsanitary conditions. He or she must assess the soil types and determine which protective system to use. This specific person must be present throughout the project to ensure prompt elimination of hazards as they arise.
  • Check the depth: Only trenches shallower than five feet or those with solid rock walls need no protective system to support the walls. The decision to go without protective measures must be that of the competent individual appointed to oversee trench safety.
  • The need for a professional engineer: OSHA requires that a registered professional engineer take charge of designing a protective system for any trenches with depths equal to or greater than 20 feet.
  • Personal protective equipment: Before you enter the trench, make sure you have the necessary PPE such as a hard hat along with hearing and eye protection.
  • Wall support: The competent individual in charge of trench safety — or the engineer — must determine the most appropriate stabilizing method to use. This could be sloping the walls away from the trench, benching — which involves stepped slopes, shoring the walls with horizontal, vertical or angled props, or by inserting a trench box that provides full protection from wall collapses.
  • Is there a safe way out? According to OSHA regulations, ladders, ramps, steps or other means of egress and access must be placed in any excavations that are deeper than four feet, and they must not be further than 25 feet from any worker in the trench to allow quick escape from cave-ins.

Consequences of trench collapses

Knowing the limited chances of surviving a trench collapse might cause you great concern for the welfare of your family if such a tragic incident was to occur. However, you might find comfort in knowing that the Pennsylvania workers’ compensation insurance program will provide financial support in such times. An experienced attorney can help with the navigation of death benefits claims for coverage of end-of-life arrangements and a wage-replacement package. If you are fortunate enough to survive, the benefits will cover your medical expenses and lost wages.


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