New York Trench Collapse and Excavating Accident Prevention Guide

Trenching and excavating are among the most hazardous activities in construction work. On average, 35 construction workers lose their lives each year due to trench collapses, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Other risks include falling into unprotected trenches, getting struck by falling objects, suffocating from lack of oxygen and inhaling toxic fumes.

When it comes to earthwork, it doesn't take much soil to cause fatalities. Three-quarters of trench fatalities involve trenches that are no more than 9 feet deep. A single cubic yard of soil can weigh as much as a small car. Trench collapses often involve many times that amount. They happen without warning, and those working inside rarely have time to get out. Few survive such catastrophic cave-ins, making prevention all the more critical.

Trench Safety Measures: Required Protection Systems

By law, any trench that is 5 feet or deeper must have an adequate protection system in place. These measures typically involve:

  • Shoring: Installing sheeting or wall supports at regular intervals to prevent cave-ins
  • Shielding: Providing trench boxes or cage-like structures for workers inside the trench
  • Sloping: Angling the trench walls outward at a sufficient angle to prevent collapses
  • Benching: Creating stepped slopes instead of sheer vertical walls

Many factors come into play when determining the appropriate protection system for a particular dig. Benching, for example, is permissible only in certain soil types. In addition to the soil composition, the ground water table, depth, weather conditions, surcharge load and vibrations from nearby machinery all affect trench stability. For trenches that are 20 or more feet deep, a qualified engineer must design or approve the protective system. Whatever system is in place, trenches must have safe access points (whether ladders, ramps or stairs) every 25 feet.

In the vast majority of trench fatalities, protective measures were either inadequate or absent entirely. Regular inspections are also critical for avoiding trench collapses. At minimum, a competent person must inspect the trench daily. Inspections are mandatory whenever potentially hazardous conditions arise such as inclement weather.

Staying Safe as a Construction Trench Worker

If you work in or around trenches, follow these tips to avoid becoming an accident victim:

  • Never enter an unprotected trench, not even for a moment.
  • Don't enter a trench that hasn't been inspected at the start of the day or after changes in conditions (such as a rainstorm).
  • Don't start digging unless all underground utilities have been identified and clearly marked.
  • Never work beneath suspended loads.
  • Keep equipment, materials and spoil piles at least 2 feet from the edges.
  • Conduct air tests at depths greater than 4 feet to ensure adequate oxygen.
  • Get out of the trench immediately if you notice potentially hazardous conditions (such as rainwater accumulating on the trench floor or a chemical-like odor).

Never hesitate to report suspected safety issues. Better to err on the side of caution than push forward into an unsafe situation.

Legal Help for New York Trench Accident Victims and their Families

If a trench or excavation accident has cost you lengthy medical bills, unjust pain and suffering or the loss of a loved one, you may be entitled to compensation. Our trench accident lawyers at Block O'Toole & Murphy are committed to pursuing the justice and financial recovery you deserve. We have secured hundreds of millions of dollars for construction workers and their families, including a $4.25 million settlement for a New York City excavation worker who fell into a 12-foot trench. Contact our attorneys online or call 212-736-5300 for a FREE case review.