Danger in the trenches: construction workers killed or injured on the job

June 28th, 2018

By Dean I Weitzman, Esq.


What you need to know about construction work accidents and liability

Just last week, another U.S. construction worker died when he was trapped in a 10-foot-deep trench that collapsed on him as he was helping to lay underground sewer pipes

That incident, which occurred in Lancaster County, Pa., left a 27-year-old worker dead, according to a story in The Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era newspaper. The man’s death is now being investigated by the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The death comes on the heels of several other similar incidents where construction workers died when trenches collapsed on them across the nation since last year.

A deep construction trench being dug out by a backhoe. Image credit: ©

A deep construction trench being dug out by a backhoe. Image credit: ©

Last December, a 50-year-old worker was killed and his 24-year-old son was injured when a trench collapsed on them as they were installing new sewer lines in a project in Massillon, Ohio, according to a story in The (Massillon) Independent newspaper.

“According to OSHA, [the contractor] used a required trench box (to reinforce dirt walls), but it was eight feet below grade,” the story reported. “The wall collapsed above the box. Additionally, a trench box was not consistently used inside another trench during part of the installation project. It also was placed below grade.”

The company faces fines of $157,710 from the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration in connection with alleged violations of five rules meant to protect workers from trench cave-ins, according to The Independent. “Two of the violations were deemed willful [by OSHA], meaning the company knew the rules, but disregarded them,” the paper reported.

It doesn’t take much to cause injuries and death when it comes to trench cave-ins. Soil is heavy and hard to control, especially if it is wet. And the deeper a trench goes into the earth, the more dangerous the situation because heavy soil can quickly shift uncontrollably unless important precautions are taken.

Cave-ins are a leading cause of worker fatalities during excavations,” Howard Eberts, OSHA’s area director in Cleveland, stated in a news release this month. “Failing to take adequate safety measures to prevent cave-ins had a tragic result in this situation. OSHA implemented a trenching and excavation special emphasis program in the 1980s, so the industry is well aware of the safety regulations for trenching operations.”

Another unrelated trench incident last December, this time in York, Pa., left a 20-year-old man dead when the trench he was working in collapsed as he was helping to install drainage pipes, according to a story in The York Dispatch newspaper. The owner of the property where the worker died has been fined $168,000 by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration in connection with the worker’s death, according to the paper. The contractor denied responsibility for the tragedy and is contesting the penalties.

“This tragic incident did not have to happen,” Kevin Kilp, director of the federal agency’s Harrisburg area office, told the Dispatch. “Excavating is recognized as one of the most hazardous construction operations, so it is vital that the company immediately comply with the OSHA standards designed to protect works from these kinds of hazards.”

Construction work, in fact, is the 10th most dangerous job in the U.S., according to a report last summer from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The numbers show that the death rate for construction workers in 2009 was 18.3 per 100,000 workers, compared to 3.3 per 100,000 for the overall U.S. workforce, according to a story in The New York Times.

Some 350 construction workers died between 2000 to 2009 in trenching or excavation cave-ins—an av­erage of 35 fatalities per year, according to a new report from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. About 64% of those fa­talities occurred at depths of less than 10 feet, according to the report.

“Workers who dig or excavate trench­es are at risk of death if they enter an unprotected trench and the walls col­lapse,” the report stated. “However, hazards associated with trench work and excavation are well defined and preventable.”

So what do you do if you are a construction worker who has to work in this kind of dangerous environment? And what do you do if you are the loved one of a construction worker and you are concerned about their safety and well-being on the job?

First, you have to be sure that your employers adhere to all of the safety regulations that mandate protections for workers operating inside trenches. According to OSHA rules, all excavations of more than five feet deep must make use of one of the following pro­tective systems:

*Create sloping ground leading to the trench to prevent steep areas of soil that can fail uncontrollably around workers.

*Shoring up the trench with supports such as planking or hydraulic jacks.

*Inserting a protective, pre-built “trench box” into the trench to provide a strong safety barrier around the workers.

Other OSHA recommendations:

*Workers should never enter a trench that does not have a protective system in place designed and installed by a competent person.

*Employers should ensure that a competent person is on hand at all times to watch over worker safety and working conditions, including soil conditions. Trenches greater than 20 feet deep can be more complex, and an engineer should be consulted to deter­mine the appropriate protective system (shoring, shield­ing, or sloping) that should be used.

*Safe working conditions must be maintained around the work site, including regular inspections of the area and protective systems each day. Work vehicles must be parked away from the trench areas so that they don’t cause cave-ins of the soil.

*Escape ladders and other means of exit from the trench must be kept within 25 feet of any worker in the trench to provide an escape route if needed. And all workers must be ordered out of an ex­cavation site if there is any evidence of a pending collapse, according to OSHA rules.

Construction work is a dangerous and serious business that has killed more than 350 workers since 2000. Many others have been seriously injured on the job.

If you or someone you love is injured in a construction accident, you will require professional, skilled and caring legal representation to help you get back on your feet after a devastating injury. We have handled many cases like this for our clients over the years.

We here at MyPhillyLawyer are to answer your questions, talk to you about your case and see you through to an appropriate legal conclusion if you or a loved one is hurt or killed in such an incident.

When Winning Matters Most, call us at MyPhillyLawyer, where we will stand by your side and provide the best and most compassionate legal support to you and your family in your time of need.

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