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Trench collapses pose real danger to construction workers

One particular danger to which construction workers can fall victim is excavation cave-ins. Understandably, there is intrinsic danger associated with excavating and working in and around trenches. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that, in a nine-year period, on average, 35 laborers lost their lives in trench collapses.

What this means is that those who work around and in trenches must be especially proactive about following all safety protocols mandated by both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

This doesn't mean that your employer is off the hook for maintaining safe and hazard-free work sites — quite the opposite. But when it comes to life or death matters, it's prudent to err on the side of caution. Below are some safety tips for those who do excavation work.

Understand the true weight of dirt

Anyone who has shoveled buckets of clay or dirt knows that these materials are very heavy. One cubic yard of dirt may weigh over 3,000 pounds, depending on its composition. Soil with a high water content is the heaviest, and you definitely don't want to end up underneath a load of excavated dirt.

Different factors affect soil stability

Is the location of the trench near areas that have already been excavated and back-filled? That could make the surface area far less stable, as could any vibrations from power tools and moving heavy machinery.

Project managers must designate on-site "competent persons"

These individuals must be fully trained, understand OSHA regulations, be able to recognize safety hazards and be authorized to take corrective actions to ensure that safety protocols get followed.

The designated competent person much inspect any excavation sites prior to work. He or she must also inspect the protective shoring barrier systems and adjacent areas and before work each day, during the shift and after it rains.

Other duties of the designated person include:

  • Calling 811 before digging to determine where utility lines are buried
  • Develop trench emergency action plans listing safety protocols to follow in emergencies
  • Ensure laborers get trained on trench dangers in the language(s) they understand
  • Ensure ladders and exit tools are located within 25 feet of workers laboring in trenches
  • Identify safe routes for heavy equipment to travel on the job site

Shore it up

All trenches that are 5 feet deep or greater require the edges shored up unless the pit consists of only stable rock.

Laborers should make sure that they do all of the following when digging trenches:

  • Steer clear of unprotected excavations
  • Inspect the shoring material and its stability before descending into the trench
  • At the first sign of issues with the excavation site shoring, get out of the trench and have the designated competent person inspect it
  • Never assume there's time to get out of harm's way in a collapse

On-the-job safety involving trenches depends on the cooperation of all workers. If you get injured in a trench collapse, you may need to take legal steps to seek compensation for any injuries and damages.

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