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When Trenches Collapse & Crush Workers

Posted On February 22, 2017

Trench collapses claimed 26 lives in 2016. This was more than the number of workers who died in 2014 and 2015 combined. Even at shallow depths of 4 to 5 feet, trench collapses can be particularly lethal as they can bury workers in mud, rock, and water making it impossible for them to breathe or extract themselves. In 2016, workers were more than twice as likely to be killed than injured in a trench collapse.

Causes of Trench Collapse

A common cause of trench collapses seen by Illinois workers’ compensation attorneys includes improper benching where unstable soils are improperly cut to create “benches” in the soil. Pressure on the surface from heavy equipment operating too close to the trench can stress the soil to the point where it will collapse. Likewise, even light rainfall can cause the benches to erode and collapse on workers within the trench. These problems also affect trenches that are inadequately sloped. Heavy vibrations from traffic or construction equipment can destabilize the slope and cause a rapid collapse.
Trenches can also collapse if they are improperly shored and supported. Construction crews often use timber or aluminum for shoring. If the wood is weakened by rot, or the supports are not properly set. the shoring can give way without notice.

Lax Safety & Monitoring Leads to Disaster

The overwhelming majority of trench collapses are preventable through rigorous adherence to safety protocols and procedures. Some of these standards include:

  • Trenches 5 feet deep or greater require companies to provide protective equipment for workers.
  • Points of egress must be created at distances no greater than 25 feet for all trenches deeper than 4 feet.
  • Shielding must be provided that is designed to function within the soil and climactic conditions that are present on the worksite.

Disaster can occur when construction managers and foremen fail to adhere to these and other standards. Most recently, a bricklayer for the Chicago Water Management Department was killed when the sewer trench he was working in collapsed on him. When trenches collapse, they can cause crushing injuries to bones and organ systems. Workers who are struck by rocks and other debris can also experience traumatic brain injury, concussions, or contusions. All of this is in addition to the risks of suffocation and drowning which are the most common causes of trench collapse fatalities.

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