Last month, OSHA proposed fines against a company for a deadly Huntsville-area trench collapse. What happened? The fatal accident occurred at a local construction site along Jeff Road. The worker entered a deep trench to work on some underground utility pipes. The trench then collapsed, suffocating the worker under thousands of pounds of soil.
After investigating this fatal construction accident, OSHA concluded the contractor failed to inspect its trenches and failed to use a proper shield system for preventing cave-ins. In issuing proposed penalties against the Huntsville contractor, OSHA’s area director said the following:
Trenching and excavation is among the most dangerous work in the construction industry. The failure to use required safety equipment and follow procedures in this case turned a preventable hazard into a fatal result. We hope other industry employers comply with the law and take appropriate actions to avoid similar tragedies.
OSHA considers excavations as “any man made cut, cavity, trench, or depression in an earth surface formed by earth removal.” Excavations can involve many types of openings. A “trench” is a narrow excavation. Trenches are an essential part of many construction projects. Often, contractors dig deep trenches without really considering the life-threatening dangers to their workers. Because of that, we frequently hear about deadly trench collapses at construction sites across Alabama.
A collapse covering workers may be the first danger people consider with trenches. But, collapses are not the only serious danger for trench workers. With that in mind, my safety question today is this — What are four serious safety issues involving construction site trenches? In our law practice over many years, we’ve investigated accidents involving every one of these dangers.
Trench Collapses And Cave-Ins Are A Serious Danger
The 2021 Huntsville accident I just discussed should serve as a serious warning about potential trench collapses. A quick search shows this is a common safety problem.
OSHA also recently fined a Tuscaloosa company because two of its workers were killed in a 2020 trench collapse on a Mississippi construction site. In that incident, the workers were in a trench installing sewer pipes when it collapsed. In another incident, two workers in Hoover, Alabama, were working on a drainage system in an 8-feet deep trench that collapsed, killing them. I could note many other fatal trench collapses over the last few years. It’s a serious problem on construction sites.
Many contractors dig trenches without considering soil stability. Even a fairly shallow trench poses a serious safety risk of collapse. What does OSHA require? You can read an OSHA Fact Sheet on trenching and excavation HERE. If a trench is 5 feet deep or greater, it must have a protective system. Even if less than 5 feet deep, OSHA requires a competent person to assess the risk and need for protection. In deeper trenches, 20 feet or greater, OSHA requires the protective system to be designed by a professional engineer.
OSHA also requires the contractor to inspect trenches daily for dangers. This is very important. Soil stability can easily change on construction sites. Workers and equipment can cause changes. One of the biggest factors is weather. Many trench collapses occur after rainstorms.
Contractors can easily take steps to shield the side of a trench from collapse. OSHA’s Fact Sheet even discusses different types of collapse-prevention systems, including benching, sloping, shoring and shielding. A little planing and precaution would save lives.
Mobile Equipment Can Fall Into Open Trenches
A construction site may have many active processes and pieces of equipment. Trucks. Backhoes. Scissors lifts. Construction sites are busy places.
Just consider a single piece of equipment – the scissors lift. In the last ten years, I’ve worked four separate cases where a scissors lift fell due to movements around a ledge, drop-off or trench. Each accident left a construction worker disabled for the rest of his life.
Contractors can take some simple steps to prevent mobile equipment from falling into trenches or openings. First, every project should start with an activity hazard analysis to identify the dangers. Then, you can use flaggers or barricades to prevent equipment movement around the openings.
Last year, we helped a trench worker injured when a backhoe fell into his trench causing a collapse. The collapse occurred on a construction site near Florence, Alabama. This worker suffered some pretty serious spinal injuries. He continues to require specialized orthopedic care. But, he is grateful to be alive.
Trenches May Contain Hazardous Atmospheres / Gases
Many people don’t realize that oxygen levels may be low in trenches. Trenches may also be contaminated by toxic gases or chemicals. Often, trenches are cut for work on sewer pipes.
Because of these dangers, companies should perform atmospheric testing for excavations exceeding four feet in depth. Where atmospheric hazards are present, workers should be equipped with proper respiratory protective equipment.
Trench Workers Can Hit Utility Lines
Growing up, I heard the warning many times. Don’t dig unless you first check with your local utility. Yet, we’ve all seen past news reports where someone struck a utility line during digging. Underground utility lines can cause electrocution or gas leaks if breached. This danger can easily be avoided.
Safety Should Be The Number One Priority
With a little planning, most accidents could be avoided. Too often, construction companies put production over people. I’ll always be reminded of a trial several years ago in Huntsville over a disabling construction-site injury. In that case, the contractor had no site safety plan. NONE. Yet, the same contractor generated thousands of documents in an effort to prevent any delays in production. The general contractor made sure every second lost to adverse weather was made up. The general contractor made sure its subcontractors were penalized for every lost second. But, not a single page of paper for any site-specific safety. The result was a tragedy. A little planning and a few simple steps can save worker lives.
From its office in Huntsville, the Blackwell Law Firm represents injured workers across Alabama. If you have questions about a work-related accident or injury, let us know. We are happy to discuss your issues. Our consultations are always free and confidential.