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No one denies that working construction is dangerous. There are pitfalls everywhere: Live wires, heavy equipment, heights, badly assembled or manufactured tools and poor maintenance are just some of the hazards of earning a living in this critical industry.

One of the most dangerous jobs in construction is working in trenches, pits and excavations. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines a trench or excavation as “… any man-made cut, cavity, trench or depression in the Earth’s surface formed by earth removal.” A trench is defined as a narrow underground excavation that is deeper than it is wide and is no wider than 15 feet (4.5 meters).

Between 2000 and 2006, 271 people died in trench collapses in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Between 1992 and 2000, 448 people died in trenching accidents. More recent numbers from OSHA show that 22 people died and 610 were injured or became sick while working in trenches. In 2013, 70 people were injured in Kentucky trenching accidents; nationwide, 610 were injured.

Government agencies publish informational and training materials on how to avoid trench collapses. For example, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) published a pamphlet titled, “Preventing Worker Deaths From Cave-Ins.” The topics covered include ways to prevent trench collapses, case studies of trench collapse incidents, things that workers should do to protect themselves and a list of references for additional information.

OSHA provides a fact sheet about trench hazards and how to protect workers from being injured or killed. According to OSHA, preventing a trench collapse should involve one or more of these protective systems:

  • Cutting back the trench at an angle
  • Shoring, which involves installing aluminium hydraulic supports that prevent soil movement
  • Shielding, which involves using trench boxes or other supports to prevent cave-ins

OSHA also provides common-sense rules that employees nd supervisors at construction sites can follow when working in trenches and excavations:

  • Keep heavy equipment away from trench edges.
  • Keep surcharge loads at least 2 feet (0.6 meters) from trench edges.
  • Know where underground utilities are located.
  • Test for low oxygen, hazardous fumes and toxic gases.
  • Inspect trenches at the start of each shift.
  • Inspect trenches following a rainstorm.
  • Do not work under raised loads.

Making trenches safe requires analysis of soil, depth of the cut, weather, moisture content of soil, weight of materials (tools and equipment) to be used in the trench and other factors. Making trenches safe is a serious responsibility for owners and managers who assign employees to work in them.

An incident in June revealed that Kentucky worksites are not immune to the dangers of trenches. According to a report by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, a Jackson, Tennesee, man was killed when concrete and dirt collapsed on him while he was repairing a sewer line on the Dixie Highway in south Louisville. The worker died at the scene after suffering traumatic asphyxia and blunt impact. Although the trench had been shored up, excavated dirt and debris slid down into the hole, burying the worker. This was the first fatal trench accident since April 2012, when a Clay County worker was killed in a trench accident.

Trench accidents can happen almost anywhere there is excavating. Workers have died or suffered serious injury when working on sewers, ditches, embankments and foundations – any type of work where it is necessary to dig a hole in the ground. After the Louisville fatality earlier this year, the director of the OSHA office in Nashville noted, “When you put workers in an unprotected trench, you are putting them in a grave. These hazards are easily identified and totally avoidable. There is no excuse for exposing workers to unprotected trenches.

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