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Beware of an unprotected trench, aka an early grave

Do you know that you can refuse to enter an unprotected trench? No construction worker in California has to put his or her life on the line for an employer who just wants to save time and money. In many cases, these are the reasons for disregarding safety regulations and not providing qualified supervision on construction sites. However, no amount of saved money or time can justify the loss of lives.

If you want to protect yourself, you should gather necessary knowledge about trenches and the federal and state regulations that apply. Did you know that as little as one cubic yard of soil can weigh as much as a small car, and if a trench wall collapses onto you, you could be dead within minutes?

What is a trench?

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, an excavation is any cavity, depression or cut that a human being makes in the surface of the earth. When an excavation's width is narrower than its depth, it is a trench — although a trench is not wider than 15 feet — and subject to specific safety regulations. Trenches are confined workspaces with steep walls that pose significant cave-in risks. Additional dangers include objects falling from above, workers falling into trenches, hazardous atmospheres and malfunctioning mobile equipment.

Who is a competent person in construction?

According to OSHA regulations, a competent person is one capable of identifying hazards and inspecting all excavations and trenches on a construction site — except those that consist entirely of solid rock. That person should determine which method of protection is necessary. He or she can also conclude that a trench needs no protection, but only if it is shallower than five feet deep. The duties of a competent person include the following:

  • He or she must identify predictable or existing hazards and take measures to rectify conditions and eliminate risks promptly.
  • That competent person must check for the presence of unsanitary conditions, such as standing water.
  • That person must identify soil types and determine which protective system to use.
  • It is also the competent person's responsibility to ensure workers have safe access and egress such as steps, ladders or ramps — a requirement for trenches with depths exceeding four feet.
  • Each worker must have access to such a device within 25 feet.
  • Registered professional engineers must design or approve protective systems for trenches that exceed depths of 20 feet.

Types of cave-in protection

The type of soil typically determines the protective measures to prevent collapses. This can include trench boxes or shields to put up against the trench walls to prevent cave-ins. Another method is sloping the trench wall at an angle or benching, which is sloping that forms steps. Shoring is another method of propping and supporting the trench walls with steel or wooden sheets.

These are but some of the safety regulations on which you can insist. Others include things such as the area around the edges must remain clear of materials and spoils and the need for respiratory protection if hazardous atmospheres exist in the bottom of the trench. The bottom line is that you have the right to refuse to enter an unprotected trench.

Workers' compensation

If you are suffering the consequences of a trench collapse, you should be entitled to claim benefits through the California workers' compensation insurance program. The benefits should cover your medical expenses and lost wages. Sadly, many victims of cave-ins do not survive. In such cases, the surviving family members can claim death benefits to provide financial assistance. An experienced workers' compensation attorney can help with the complicated claims process.

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  • San Jose: 408-624-8420
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  • San Luis Obispo: 805-475-3890

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