MD excavation workplace rules: What happens when a trench collapses?

A workplace can take on many forms. For some, the workplace is a traditional office space. Others may work outside, maintaining roadways or working at construction sites. Whatever the workspace looks like, regulations are present that better ensure the workplace is safe for workers.

Some workspaces are inherently more dangerous than others. One example: trenches or excavation sites.

The dangers of working in a trench: Recent cave-in case provides example

Trenches are fundamentally dangerous workspaces. If employers do not take steps to keep these spaces safe, a trench can cause serious injury and death. In a recent case, the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health (MOSH) agency found a local company guilty of willful and serious safety violations that led to the death of a 20-year-old contract worker and injuries to two other workers. The death and injuries were the result of a workplace accident involving a trench collapse. The workers were clearing a clogged water line at a Baltimore city pool at the time of the accident.

The agency investigated the accident and found the employer had made multiple safety failures that led to the accident including a lack of proper training, unsafe work conditions, a failure to conduct daily inspections, a lack of protective helmets, ladders or ramps to get out of the trenched workspace and a lack of a protective system to reduce the risk of a cave-in. The agency fined the company $275,000 for these violations.

This case provides an example of the greatest risk those who work in a trench or excavation site can face: a cave-in. However, other risks can include asphyxiation, inhalation of toxic materials, fire risks and the potential for severing an underground utility line. As a result, MOSH has outlined the steps employers must take to keep their workers safe.

MOSH expectations: Employers must provide a safe workspace

Before beginning work and prepping the excavation site, employers are expected to review the type of soil, water content and needed depth of the workspace as well as potential weather considerations. Once employers have this information, MOSH regulations generally require the employer utilize needed safety measures. Examples can include:

  • Shielding. This involves use of a structure within the trench or excavated area that could withstand a potential cave-in. It provides a safe area to protect workers while in this dangerous space. This is sometimes referred to as a trench box.
  • Shoring. This option makes use of structures that support the sides of the excavation site, also reducing the risk of cave-ins. Systems may use various materials such as a metal hydraulic or timber structures.
  • Sloping. Worksites can also benefit from digging the area around the excavation site at an incline. The angle is determined based on various factors that could trigger a cave-in.

MOSH also requires employers provide a ladder or stairway within 25 feet of all workers when working within a space that is 4 feet or more deep. The agency states a competent person must generally conduct daily inspections of these worksites. To qualify as competent, the individual should have proper training and be knowledgeable about protective systems and be able to recognize potential hazards.

Liability: The next step when employers fail to meet their legal duty

Employers that do not provide a safe work environment may be held accountable for any resulting injury or fatality. An attorney experienced in workplace injury claims can review your case and discuss your options.