Trench Collapses Can Be Tragic, But Are Preventable

Two Michigan men were recently rescued from a collapsed trench after two hours of work by fire and rescue teams. The men had dug the trench behind a home to work on plumbing when the trench caved in, trapping them both. One man was quickly freed while the second man was buried up to his neck. A ladder was used to keep him from sinking deeper and emergency personnel were able to finally dig him out after two hours.

How Trench Collapses Happen

Trench collapses cause hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries each year. Construction sites frequently use trenches when installing plumbing and electrical.

The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) defines a trench as a narrow, underground excavation that is deeper than it is wide, but no wider than 15 feet. Trenches collapse when there is insufficient support for the trench walls. While a number of factors can contribute to a collapse, water and soil conditions are among the most common.

What Can Be Done To Avoid Them

Fortunately, most trench collapses are preventable. Before excavating, OSHA recommends evaluating the job site to ensure all safety factors are considered. It recommends using a checklist with factors such as:

  • Proximity and physical conditions of nearby structures
  • Soil type
  • Surface and ground water
  • Location of the water table
  • Overhead and underground utilities

OSHA requires all trenches and other excavations in which employees could face a cave-in to be protected by sloped or benched sides, or side supports and shields between the sides and the work area(s).

The protections should account for the depth of the excavation and the factors on the checklist above. To guide excavators, OSHA provides suggestions of excavation methods such as sloping or shoring, as well as approaches to creating protective systems like trench boxes and shields.

Possible Remedies For Trench Collapse Injuries

If anyone is injured from a collapsed trench and the contractor was negligent in following OSHA standards, that contractor and the entire company can be held liable for the injuries. Injured workers may be entitled to payment for medical bills and lost wages through workers' compensation. The family of a deceased worker may be entitled to a wrongful death award.

Trench collapses can be tragic, but they need not be. Following OSHA standards can ensure excavation work areas are stable and safe. When they are not and someone is injured or killed, the responsible party must be held accountable.