What Should Workers Know About Trench Collapses and Workers’ Compensation?

Trenches are long, narrow ditches dug with heavy equipment that are used in different industries for a variety of reasons, including pouring foundations; laying gas, water, or sewer pipes; and burying electrical lines. Trenches may also be required while building or repairing roads or anytime underground access is needed. Workers may be called on to dig or work in trenches that can be anywhere from five to 20 feet deep. When trenches collapse, workers can be fatally trapped or seriously injured, as soil is extremely heavy. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a cubic yard of soil can weigh up to one and a half tons, which is roughly the same weight as a small motor vehicle. OSHA reports that every year, trench collapses cause dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries.

What Causes Trench Collapses?

The reasons for trench collapse are many and varying, including the following:

  • Soil that is too dry
  • Soil that is too wet
  • Environmental conditions such as heavy rainfall
  • Vibrations from nearby equipment or vehicles running too close to the trench affecting soil stability
  • Weight of heavy equipment or tools
  • Improper shoring of trench walls
  • Trenches dug on previously disturbed soil
  • Unsafe distance between the spoil pile and the lip of the trench

What are Common Injuries from Trench Collapses?

When a trench collapses, the workers inside are buried in dirt and debris, and often they are suffocated. They can drown if water is in the trench when it collapses or be electrocuted if electrical current was active at the time of the accident. For those who are rescued in time from a trench collapse, injuries often include the following trauma:

  • Broken bones and fractures
  • Head and neck injuries
  • Shoulder injuries
  • Back injuries
  • Electrical burns
  • Oxygen deprivation
  • Crush injuries including internal bleeding and internal organ damage

How can Trench Collapses be Prevented?

Injuries and fatalities from trench collapses are entirely preventable when the proper safety precautions are taken. Every employer has the responsibility to see that their workplace is safe from safety hazards, and trench work is no exception. OSHA has extensive safety guidelines for companies with workers excavating and working in trenches. This is because trenches give no warning before they collapse, so any worker entering an unprotected or insufficiently protected trench is automatically putting their life at risk.

Only a competent person can plan a trenching job. Analysis of the soil is crucial to determine the appropriate sloping, benching, and shoring of the trench. To prevent trench collapse or cave-in, trench walls must be sloped or benched, shored with supports, or shielded with trench boxes. In many cases of trench collapse, employers have opted against the use of trench boxes because of the cost involved. OSHA safety guidelines specify that any trench five feet deep or more must be shored.

Other hazards to be avoided in trench work include underground and overhead electrical lines, gas and other utility lines, standing water, and atmospheric hazards such as toxic fumes.

Employers must also ensure that heavy machinery traffic is routed at a safe distance from the trench, have safe entrances and exits for each trench that are no more than 25 feet away from workers at all times, and designate safe spots away from the trench for spoil piles. The competent person should inspect trenches, adjacent areas, and protective systems daily before work begins, throughout the day, and after any weather changes such as rainstorms.

What Should I Do if I am Injured in a Trench Collapse?

As with almost all injuries from workplace accidents, injuries from a trench collapse should be covered by Workers’ Compensation. Trench workers injured in a collapse should report their injuries to their employer or a supervisor and seek medical care. A successful Workers’ Compensation claim could result in some or all of the following benefits:

  • Medical benefits that cover treatment, including surgeries, hospital stays, prescription medication, and rehabilitation
  • Wage loss benefits for time away from work to recover from work-related injuries
  • Temporary or permanent disability benefits in the event that a worker cannot return to the job
  • Death benefits for surviving family members of a worker who suffers a fatality in a trench collapse

In cases in which someone other than the employer is responsible for the trench collapse, it may be possible to recover compensation through a third-party claim. For instance, if a third party’s negligence contributed to the collapse such as a construction company or contractor who is not the employer, they can be held responsible for injuries caused by the accident. Damages awarded in a third-party claim may include loss of wages and future earnings, pain and suffering, emotional distress, and punitive damages in cases of reckless endangerment.

What are My Rights as a Trench Worker?

Every worker has the right to a workplace free of health and safety hazards and the right to speak up about hazards without fear of retaliation. Trench workers should remember that they have the right to safety training in a language they understand, any safety equipment required for the job, the right to see results of tests performed to identify workplace hazards, and the right to request an OSHA inspection and speak to the inspector.

Trench work is highly dangerous unless it is meticulously planned and monitored. Any trench worker who believes they may be working in unsafe conditions can file a confidential complaint with OSHA and ask for an inspection. If possible, the employer should be notified of the unsafe conditions. Workers have the right to go along on an OSHA inspection and to talk privately with the inspector before and after the inspection. In situations in which conditions clearly present the risk of serious harm or death and there is not sufficient time for OSHA to inspect and the employer has been made aware of the condition, a worker may have the legal right to refuse to work in the hazardous condition.

Mount Holly Workers’ Compensation Lawyers at Kotlar, Hernandez & Cohen, LLC Help Workers Injured in a Trench Collapse

If you have been injured in a trench collapse or suffered any work injury, you can count on the experienced Mount Holly Workers’ Compensation lawyers at Kotlar, Hernandez & Cohen, LLC to fight for your benefits. We will work to ensure you can properly recover, receive the services for which you are entitled, and recover compensation if warranted. Call us at 856-751-7676 or contact us online for a free consultation. Our offices are in Mount Laurel, Cherry Hill, Trenton, and Vineland, New Jersey; and Trevose, Pennsylvania. We serve clients throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

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