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Beware of the danger of working in trenches

Construction workers and manual laborers in Connecticut who work in and around trenches should know about the on-the-job dangers to which they are exposed. During the past decade, according to data supplied by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, on average, 35 workers across the nation died in excavation or trench cave-ins each year.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health states that one cubic yard of dirt can weigh over one-and-a-half tons. It's easy to see how workers can get buried alive in the blink of an eye in a trench collapse.

What causes trench instability?

Not all trenches are composed of the same type of soil, and the water content in the dirt can make a trench site more or less stable. Other factors that can affect the viability of the excavation site include:

  • Vibrations from tools and heavy equipment at, and adjacent to, the trench site
  • Whether the site is in close proximity to other excavation sites that have been backfilled
  • Whether there is heavy machinery resting nearby on the ground

These are not the only factors that could cause a trench to become unstable suddenly, but they are commonly present when deadly collapses occur.

Safety measures before you dig

Prior to the first shovelful of dirt being removed from the site, employers must:

  • Call 811 to determine where the utility lines are located
  • Implement an emergency action plan for the excavation site with specific actions to take in emergencies
  • Properly train all workers about trench hazards in the language(s) they can comprehend
  • Provide means to exit the excavation site, e.g., ladders, within 25 feet of the workers in the trench
  • Determine the safest routes for heavy equipment movements

How to avoid a trench collapse

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires that any trench that is five or more feet deep has to be shored up on its sides. This applies to all trenches except those composed solely from stable rocks.

NIOSH also offers recommendations to workers and employers to create and maintain safer trench sites. Workers should always inspect a shored-up trench before descending into it, and no one should ever go into a trench that has no protection. It is also never safe to assume that workers can dodge a collapsing trench site in time. Upon seeing any indication of trench instability, workers should immediately evacuate the trench and call an inspector over to check out the site.

Employers have a duty to designate and train someone who is able to recognize potential hazards and who has the authority to fix them. This competent person is responsible for ensuring that trench safety measures are being followed.

That individual must inspect the trench site at the start of each shift. He or she must check to see that the shoring systems are working and that adjacent areas don't pose any hazards. This is especially important after it rains.

When accidents happen

If you are lucky enough to survive a trench collapse with injuries, you may be eligible to file a workers' compensation claim for your injuries and other damages. If your employer balks at approving the claim or is giving you the runaround, a Connecticut workers' comp attorney may be able to get the ball rolling for you with your benefits.

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