Almost all construction sites in Pennsylvania include excavations and trenches, which safety authorities regard as some of the riskiest areas for construction workers. If your job involves trench work, you might benefit from gaining as much knowledge about these hazards as possible. You can also learn about the steps that you can take to stay safe.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration prescribes strict safety standards when it comes to trench safety. However, your employer might be one of those who prioritizes profits instead of employee safety. For this reason, it might be wise to learn about your rights to workplace safety.
Do you know the difference between excavations and trenches?
The definition of these hazards shows that, while they seem the same, all trenches qualify as excavations while not all excavations are necessarily trenches. Under OSHA standards, the following differences exist:
- Excavations are man-made cavities, trenches, cuts or depressions in the earth's surface created by the removing soil.
- Trenches are excavations that are not wider than 15 feet and with depths that exceed their widths.
The classification of the excavation determines the applicable safety standards.
Who implements appropriate safeguards?
If you have to work in a trench that is between five and 19 feet deep and not made of solid, stable rock, a competent person must determine which protective system to implement. The competence must include knowledge and authority to take action to mitigate hazards. However, if the depth of the trench exceeds 20 feet, OSHA requires a registered engineer to determine which safety system to implement.
Typical trench hazards
The best way to stay safe while working in trenches is to learn about potential hazards and never become complacent. You should keep a lookout for the following dangers and know your rights to safety:
- Utility line hazards: Make sure your local 811 agency marks utility lines. Hitting electrical wires can cause electrocution, and gas leaks can cause death.
- Hazardous atmospheres: Trenches deeper than four feet can have insufficient oxygen levels or contain the presence of toxic gases or chemicals that can be life-threatening. Atmospheric testing is mandatory, and your employer must provide respiratory protection when necessary.
- Wall collapses: This is the most significant hazard, and sloping, shielding or installing supports is crucial to prevent cave-ins.
- Mobile equipment: If you are in a trench, make sure that barricades, flaggers or spotters are present to prevent backhoe loaders, dump trucks and other mobile equipment from coming too close to the edge of the trench. It could compromise the stability of the trench walls and put you in danger of being overwhelmed by a cave-in or struck by materials being unloaded.
- Falling loads and falling into a trench: Workers can fall into trenches without warning signs or barricades. If workers place soil and job site equipment too close to the trench area, falling materials can strike you while you work inside the trench. Also, you should avoid working underneath suspended loads.
Safety authorities also prescribe that there must be a ladder to provide a quick exit from the trench in an emergency.
Your rights to workers' compensation benefits
Unfortunately, trench collapses claim the lives of many construction workers every year. If you should suffer injuries in such an accident, the Pennsylvania workers' compensation insurance program will cover your medical expenses and lost wages. An experienced workers' compensation attorney can also help surviving family members to file a survivor's benefits claim for financial assistance if their loved one died as the result of a trench collapse or other construction site accident.