According to the CDC, some of the most dangerous construction work you can do involves excavation and trenching. Not only are there risks of cave-ins, there are also the hazards of working alongside heavy equipment such as backhoes and hydraulic excavators. Roughly 100 workers are killed and 1,000 are injured every year in excavation and trenching accidents. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), between 2000 and 2006, 271 workers died in cave-ins.

Asphyxiation or injuries caused by crushing are the usual reasons for cave-in fatalities. A cubic yard of dirt can weigh as much as a large car—well over a ton. Fatalities where heavy equipment is in use often result from being struck by the equipment’s bucket, from a quick-detachable bucket coming off, or from hitting power lines with the bucket.

Contrary to what you might think, most deaths do not occur on large sites.

Sixty-eight percent of fatalities occurred in companies that employ fewer than 50 workers, and 46 percent were in companies of ten or fewer workers. So it is on the small jobs that you might need to be most watchful of safety violations.

Common Threads in Fatalities

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) calls most trenching deaths preventable. The common themes tend to be inadequate protective and safety measures and little to no training for those called upon to do the work.

Here are examples of actual trenching fatalities:

  • A worker died from being hit in the head by the backhoe bucket because the backhoe’s operator inadvertently contacted the boom swing control.
  • A worker died after a quick-disconnect bucket on a hydraulic excavator came off and struck him.
  • A worker died in a retaining wall collapse in which the wall was not shored up and no competent person was on site to inspect the trench. The worker in the trench also received no training.
  • Two employees were installing pipe in a nine-foot-deep unprotected trench when a cave-in occurred. One worker died, and the other suffered serious facial injuries.
  • A worker died in a 20-to-25-foot-deep trench with inadequately-protected walls. The worker had just climbed down into it to inspect the grade needed to install a sewer line. At the time of collapse, a backhoe was still excavating the trench.
Tragically, cave-ins happen everywhere, even locally. In February 2015, a City of Columbia worker was killed while repairing a pipe near a new student housing complex. The worker was approximately four-to-six-feet below ground when the trench walls collapsed. The victim was pronounced dead at Palmetto Richland Memorial Hospital. OSHA was called to investigate the incident.

The Need for Competence

The biggest cause of cave-ins is poor training of workers and supervisors. In such cases, safety regulations and standard good practices are often ignored. Operations are completed without the proper assessments of soil type, water in the soil, underground utilities, and other factors. Such operations tend to ignore appropriate protective systems and measures, escape ladders or ramps, faulty construction of slopes and benches, and so on.

OSHA requires that a competent person be on-site for all excavations of five feet or deeper that will hold workers. A competent person is defined as someone who is capable of recognizing hazards in the surroundings or working conditions and who has the authority to take measures to eliminate the hazards. Regular inspections of conditions and preventative systems in place should be routine.

Competence can go a long way in preventing accidents. Not having a competent person on-site can also result in large fines.

Suggestions for a Safer Work Environment

Protective systems exist to keep trenching walls from collapsing, and OSHA requires their use for trenches five feet deep or more. But there are also other, more common-sense ways to prevent injury and death on the job, including the following [source]:

  • Have a competent person inspect the trench daily, or after conditions change (such as a rainstorm).
  • Provide a safe entrance and escape from the trench, such as with a ladder or ramp.
  • Keep heavy equipment away from trench walls.
  • Pile excavated material at least two feet away from trenches.
  • Identify things that affect trench stability, such as the type of soils present, the stability of nearby structures, and warning signs of protective systems failure.
  • Locate all underground utilities before starting.
  • Test air quality in the trench for low oxygen levels or hazardous gases or fumes.
  • Prevent work from occurring underneath suspended or raised loads of materials.

Here are safety suggestions, from the CDC, for when you are working with or around excavating machinery:

  • Securely latch detachable buckets before work begins.
  • Do not exceed load capacities of machines.
  • Before work begins, confirm communication signals that will be used between the machine operators and the workers on the ground.
  • Keep well away from the swing areas of hydraulic excavators.
  • Remain aware of your surroundings, including the locations of power lines and of fellow workers. This applies both to those on the ground and those operating machinery.

When Life Goes Wrong, We Fight for What’s Right

There is no substitute for proper legal help when making a construction accident claim. Since 1959, the Louthian Law Firm has helped South Carolinians win compensation for construction injuries.

We know our clients come to us during a stressful time in their lives. That’s why we promise our clients personalized service outside of court and experienced aggressive representation at the negotiation table and at trial. Call our Columbia excavation accident lawyers today toll free at (803) 454-1200 or use our online contact form to schedule a free and confidential consultation.