While trenches on a construction site do not have the same threat of death as those on a battlefield, they are not risk-free, and many of their hazards are the same.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issues guidance that employers using trenches must follow. Despite this, some construction companies fail to take adequate safety precautions, leading excavations to collapse and injure workers.
Why do trenches collapse?
Think about digging a hole on the beach as a child. Progress was slow because, for every spadeful of sand you excavated, a similar amount would fall back. While soils on construction sites are coarser and more stable than a beach, they are not solid. Soil consists of separate particles, and digging into them or exposing them weakens the bond. Not only do they have less material supporting them, but they become subject to the effects of wind, sun and water.
Here are some things employers need to ensure before asking you to work in a trench:
- Adequate support: Trench work requires thorough planning from someone with a knowledge of the forces and dangers involved. A trench dug in one part of the site may need more support than one of the same size a few yards away.
- Free of hazards: Electricity cables, gas, and water pipes could prove dangerous if hit during trench excavation. Soil can also contain harmful gases.
- Protection from above: Because you are in a hole in the ground, you are at risk from things above you. It could be soil heaped near the edge falling back in. Or it could be Dave, who is a bit hungover and trips near the trench edge before landing on your head.
- Regular inspection: A trench that is stable today might not be safe tomorrow. Employers need to ensure a competent person inspects excavations with sufficient frequency.
If injured on a construction site, you will need to claim against the company’s workers’ compensation insurance. Knowing the correct way to do this reduces the chance the insurer denies your claim.