October 30, 2023

The Dangers of Collapsing Trenches and Why Safety Matters

By Jonathan Damashek

Posted in

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In just a matter of milliseconds, disaster can strike on an excavation site. Whether it’s accidentally hitting an underground water line, striking an electrical hazard, or getting trapped in a trench collapse, digging in a populated urban environment like New York City can lead to serious injuries or fatalities for construction workers.

Trench cave-ins are a growing threat to construction workers’ safety, with fatality rates rising in recent years. These workers deserve to be protected, but unfortunately, some New York construction companies try to increase productivity by cutting corners – putting profits over workers’ lives.

Trench Accidents in NYC

Excavations are man-made cuts, depressions, cavities, and other holes in the ground caused by removing the earth. A trench is a specific type of excavation that is more deep than wide. The width of a trench isn’t greater than 15 feet, but its depth can range from just a couple feet to several meters down.

There are numerous types of trench cave-ins that can occur in New York, including the following:

  • Belly sloughs – Belly sloughs occur when the bottom of a trench wall collapses but the top section remains, causing a concave slope in the dirt and often burying a worker beneath.
  • Spoil pile slides – “Spoil piles” are excess dirt placed on the sides of a trench after being dug. If spoil piles are placed too closely to the trench, they may fall into the trench. This is known as a spoil pile slide.
  • Shear wall collapses – A shear wall collapse is the deadliest type of trench cave-in. These collapses occur when one side of a trench wall breaks off and falls inward.
  • Lip slides – Lip slides occur when the upper portion of a trench collapses. These types of slides usually indicate that a much bigger collapse is about to occur.

These are just some of the ways an excavation site can collapse and injure or kill a worker.

Why Are Trench Cave-ins Dangerous?

Many New York construction workers assume a trench collapse will never happen to them until one does.

Trench cave-ins are largely dangerous because of the weight of materials and how fast they can collapse. You might assume soil isn’t very heavy, but just one cubic yard can weigh 3,000 pounds – as much as a car. When you’re working deep in a trench, there isn’t anywhere else to go before one and a half tons of soil collapse onto you. The weight can be even greater for other materials such as clay or gravel.

Time is another factor in the severity of trench accidents. Typically, a trench cave-in occurs within seconds – leaving the worker with little time to escape. The conditions of trenches can also make rescue efforts incredibly difficult, leaving many trapped workers without immediate help.

Common Injuries in New York Trench Collapses

In seconds, a collapsed trench can result in the following injuries and more:

  • Asphyxiation
  • Crushing injuries
  • Internal organ damage
  • Traumatic brain injury (TBI)
  • Loss of limbs
  • Death

If you’ve lost a loved one due to a preventable trench collapse, contact our NYC wrongful death attorneys at HKD for guidance and support navigating the complicated legal process while grieving.

How to Prevent Trench Cave-ins

There are many factors that make New York City particularly dangerous for excavation workers, including the network of underground utilities, the unpredictable soil variability, and fast project deadlines. However, there are numerous ways to prevent trench collapses and protect workers from these horrific accidents.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), trenches less than 5 feet deep only need a “competent person” to inspect it before a worker is allowed to enter. A competent person is someone who is trained in the use of protective systems, is knowledgeable of OSHA requirements, and has the authority to immediately evacuate workers and ensure any hazards are addressed.

Trenches that are 5 feet or deeper need additional safety measures than just a competent person’s inspection. OSHA requires that contractors follow these procedures to prevent a possible cave-in of a trench 5 feet or deeper:

  • Sloping: Sloping involves slanting the sides of a trench so that the trench walls are inclined away from the excavation. The specific angle of incline will vary based on the soil type, environmental conditions, and other factors.
  • Shoring: Shoring involves using support materials to hold up the trench walls.
  • Shielding: Shielding means placing structures around the trench to keep the surrounding soil in place.

For trenches greater than 20 feet deep, OSHA requires that all protective systems are designed by a registered professional engineer.

Compensation After an NYC Trench Collapse

If you’ve been injured in a trench collapse in New York City, you likely have a lot of bills and debt piling up. It’s not your fault you were hurt – you shouldn’t be the one to pay for it. Chances are that your employer or a negligent third party was responsible for your accident and should be held liable for your damages.

However, proving negligence and obtaining your rightful compensation can require the help of an experienced construction accident attorney. You might have to take your case to trial to receive the full compensation you are owed, or even testify if the at-fault party faces criminal charges stemming from the collapse.

Proving Negligence After a Cave-in Accident

If someone else’s negligence contributed to your accident and injuries, then the at-fault party should be liable for your damages. For example, suppose a site supervisor fails to follow these OSHA requirements for safe trench procedures and excavation work:

In this case, the supervisor and the company that hired them could be found negligent and be held liable for a trench accident. These people had a duty to ensure all necessary safety precautions were in place and that everyone adhered to them before a collapse could harm someone.

Calculating Damages in a Trench Accident Case

Damages describe the impacts you have as a direct result of an accident. For example, if you can no longer work due to the severity of your injuries, you may be able to recover compensation for your lost wages. However, in order to accurately calculate your damages, you should rely on the experience and legal insight of a construction accident attorney.

Placing a value on your damages – particularly non-economic damages – can be challenging. You’re already facing a lengthy recovery and injuries. You deserve to focus on healing while an experienced lawyer handles the tricky legal matters and fights for you to receive full and fair compensation.

Contact a New York Trench Accident Lawyer at HKD Today

At Hecht, Kleeger, & Damashek, P.C., our construction accident attorneys believe every negligent company, contractor, or employer should be held accountable after a trench collapse occurs. We know construction is a necessary but dangerous industry. If you or a loved one are injured, trapped, or killed by a cave-in, you deserve restitution.

We have helped countless clients recover millions after their construction site injuries. Let us help you. Contact our construction accident lawyers at 212-490-5700 today if you or a loved one has been injured in a collapsing trench accident in New York.