Despite every construction company’s claim that safety comes first, trench collapse deaths are still happening at a more alarming rate than a year or two ago. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently released a graphic that shows the number of construction trench injuries and deaths from 2012 to 2016. There were more deaths in 2016 than in 2014 and 2015 COMBINED (23 in 2016, as opposed to 11 each in 2014 and 2015). Trench collapses happen quickly, with devastating results, as one cubic yard of soil can weigh up to 3,000 pounds (almost as much as a full-size pickup truck). Trench collapse deaths are preventable. So why do they continue to happen every year with greater frequency? It appears to be a combination of safety rule ignorance, lack of supervision, pressures of finishing a job on time and on (or under) budget — and sometimes plain old laziness. “Trench deaths have more than doubled nationwide in less than a year,” said Dr. David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor, recently in an OSHA release. “It’s an alarming and unacceptable trend that must be halted. There’s no excuse since these fatalities are completely preventable.” Because of that uptick in trench-related deaths among construction workers, the Kentucky Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation Program recently released a hazard alert with a warning that emphasizes the dangers of trench work. Calling the rise in fatalities “alarming,” the alert lists several tips to protect construction workers who perform trench work:
- Have a competent person – preferably a site supervisor – inspect trenches before each shift and after every rainstorm or other event which may create a digging hazard.
- Establish protective measures – benching, shoring, sloping and shielding – for all trenches between five feet and 20 feet deep. For those deeper than 20 feet, require a registered professional engineer to design these systems.
- Keep excavated soil (the spoils) and other materials no closer than two feet from trench edges.
- Train employees to spot signs of imminent trench collapse, including tension cracks, bulging and toppling.
- Provide a safe way to quickly exit trenches no more than 25 feet from where workers are located in the trench.
- Provide trench cave-in protection
- Protect workers from excavated material failing or rolling into a trench or falling from the inner trench walls
- Train workers how to recognize trench hazards.