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Excavating hazards: Don't let your job create your grave

Trenches pose severe safety hazards that some employers tend to disregard. This might be because safeguarding trenches takes time and money, which are two things many construction company owners like to save. Dozens of construction workers lose their lives in trench collapses every year, and hundreds more are fortunate to come away injured but alive.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a trench is an excavation in the surface of the earth that forms a narrow underground pit with a width of up to 15 feet and a depth that exceeds the width. These human-made cuts in the ground must be secured to prevent the walls from collapsing.

What are the known dangers of trenches?

As a construction worker in Kentucky, you are entitled to demand protection when you enter an excavation. The greatest risk related to trenches is cave-ins, which occur when unsupported walls collapse. The weight of a collapsing wall of soil can equal that of a small car, and the pressure exerted typically causes death or severe injuries. Other dangers that have claimed many lives include falls or being struck by falling loads, toxic or hazardous atmospheres, mobile equipment incidents, and more.

OSHA requirements

The federal safety agency requires a fully trained individual to carry out daily inspections of trenches before any workers enter the excavations. The task of this person is to identify and eliminate any trench-related hazards. Furthermore, there must be safe means of access and egress no further than 25 feet from any worker. These could be ramps, steps, ladders or other safe ways for employees to exit in emergencies. These rules apply to trenches with depths of four feet or more.

Don't put your life on the line

Make sure these measures are in place before you enter any excavation. Only trenches with all four walls made of solid rock need no support – anything else must have one or more of the following protections:

  • Sloped trench walls at inclined angles away from the trench
  • Shored trench walls comprising supports that will prevent movement of soil that can cause cave-ins
  • Trench boxes that support walls and retain the earth

Safety rules that should be in place around trenches

If any of the following safety precautions are lacking at an excavation, you and your coworkers may be at a significant risk, and you have the right to refuse to enter the unprotected excavation:

  • No heavy equipment near the edges of the trench
  • A clearing -- free of surcharge loads -- of at least two feet around the trench
  • Locating and marking of underground utility lines
  • Atmospheric tests for air quality to identify toxic gases, hazardous fumes or low oxygen levels
  • Daily trench inspections
  • Additional inspections after rain storms
  • No overhead loads

If you are recovering from workplace injuries you suffered in a trench collapse, you will likely be facing high medical expenses along with possible post-traumatic stress that is common after such a near-fatal workplace accident. Pursuing financial assistance could be a challenging process at this difficult time. However, the services of Kentucky workers' compensation attorneys are available to navigate benefits claims for any injured workers or the surviving family members of workers who lost their lives in trench collapses.

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