Safety First Prevents Workers from Being Injured in Trenches & Excavations

By Neil Kalra

This year got off to a bad start for trench collapses as seven U.S. workers perished in the first quarter of 2020. This included two who died in late January when a trench collapsed during the installation of a septic tank in Nassau County. The workers were digging a hole for the tank when the walls suddenly collapsed on them. Both men were at the bottom of the 30 foot deep hole and quickly buried by about seven feet of wet dirt and sand.

Trenching and excavation work consistently rank as one of the most dangerous construction-related jobs. Excavation typically involves digging, cutting or moving earth either with heavy equipment or by hand. A trench is classified by the Federal Occupation and Safety Hazard Agency (OSHA) as “any cut where the depth of the cut is deeper than its width.”

Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data shows that about 25 workers are killed each year in trench/excavation-related mishaps with cave-ins like the one in Nassau County causing about three out of every four deaths. The balance of trenching fatalities is largely due to struck-by-an-object or electrocutions. Most often, trenching accidents on construction sites take the lives of general laborers (53 percent according to the BLS).


The Center for Construction Research and Training commissioned a study in 2017 to look into the causes of these mishaps. It came to the following conclusions:

  • About 75 percent of those questioned “Frequently” or “Occasionally” said no trench protection was in place.

  • Only 25 percent said there was “Always” sufficient pre-planning for trench work, while one-in-three said pre-planning was “Occasional.”

  • Only 37 percent of those surveyed said there was “Always” a “competent person” on the trenching site. Having a designated competent person on site – for the purposes of safety – is a major OSHA requirement.

  • About half of those surveyed refused to enter an unsafe trench at some point during their career.

  • One third said they have witnessed, been involved in, or inspected a trench collapse.

  • Many respondents admit that they have an inadequate understanding of OSHA standard’s requirements – especially regarding sloping/benching.

  • Lack of training, the production schedule, and an “It won’t happen on my watch” attitude were overwhelmingly cited as the greatest dangers for trench incidents.

  • Of those surveyed, the majority feel that increasing penalties (and criminal sanctions), more frequent inspections, and redoubled training of competent persons, would positively impact trenching compliance and safety.

Protection from Cave-in’s and Excavations

There are several different types of protective systems:

  • Sloping – cutting back the trench wall at an inclined angle away from the excavation

  • Shoring – installing aluminum hydraulic or other types of supports to prevent soil movement and cave-ins

  • Shielding – protecting workers by using trench boxes or other types of supports to prevent soil cave-ins.

The many factors of designing a protective system can be complex because of all the elements which must be incorporated: soil classification, depth of cut, water content of soil, weather and climate changes, surcharge loads (other materials used in the trench) and other operations adjacent to the trench.


OSHA has published safety standards to ensure elimination of excavation hazards: they include:

  • Keep heavy equipment away from trench edges.

  • Keep surcharge loads at least 2 feet from trench edges.

  • Know where underground utilities are located.

  • Test for low oxygen, hazardous fumes, and toxic gases.

  • Inspect trenches as each shift begins.

  • Inspect trenches after it rains.

  • Do not work under raised loads.

Whether you were, or a family member was, injured due to a construction, car, commercial vehicle, or semi-truck accident; you may be entitled to full benefits and compensation. Know your rights and get the answers you deserve.

The attorneys at Kalra Law Firm are dedicated to getting construction accident victims the compensation they deserve. Call our office now to speak with one of our experienced construction accident lawyers to represent you in your case. We offer a free initial consultation and will not charge unless we win your case. If you have any questions about your construction accident, call our New York City and Queens Construction accident lawyers today at (718) 897-2211. www.unionlawyer.com

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