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Excavation Cave-ins in Massachusetts

Safety is a huge problem in excavation work in Massachusetts and other states. One of the biggest potential hazards in an excavation job is the cave-in. If a wall collapses, workers must have some means of escape or they could be trapped, suffocated and killed on the job.

The Centers for Disease Control have reported that excavation cave-ins cause about 1000 work-related injuries per year. 140 of these cause permanent disability and 75 cause death. Cave-ins account for almost 1% of all work-related deaths.

OSHA recently cited a Medford contractor who was working in Chelsea. The contractor’s workers were installing sewer pipe in an excavation 7 feet deep. Proper precautions to protect the workers were not taken. There was no protection against wall collapse. Water had collected at the bottom of the excavation and the asphalt at the top of the excavation could have fallen on workers. Because there was no way to escape, workers could be buried in seconds. The employer knew of the hazards but did not take proper precautions.

OSHA issued a willful citation and three serious citations for these hazards. As stated in other posts, a willful citation is one issued when an employer intentionally disregards legal requirements or is indifferent to worker safety.

What should the contractor have done differently? Excavations that are five feet or deeper must be protected against collapse in accordance with OSHA guidelines. Protection can be achieved different ways. An employer can shore up the side walls. It can slope unstable soil at a shallow angle. It can use a protective trench box or shield.

OSHA standards also specify required horizontal-to-vertical ratios for safe sloping to protect workers. Every type of soil holds together differently and has a different safety ratio.

While the CDC reports that critics have described the existing OSHA soil classifications as “dangerously variable,” the National Bureau of Standards and NIOSH have put out a document that may be more precise called Construction Safety Standards for Excavations, DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 83-103 [3].

NIOSH requires protection in excavations 5 feet deep regardless of soil type and offers a simpler soil classification to help employers determine an appropriate slope for the excavation. NIOSH also recommends shoring, shielding or sloping for all excavations deeper than 24 feet, except those in unfractured rock.

The CDC believes that employers are either unaware of the OSHA standards or are misinterpreting the requirements of the standards. In studies of fatalities at excavation sites, it is worth noting that no protective standards were taken. It is critical for employers to provide protections.

If you work in excavation and note that there are potentially unprotected situations where you are exposed to cave-ins, you should alert your supervisor as to the unsafe condition. OSHA standards require that a competent person inspect the excavation and adjacent areas for possible cave-ins and failures of protection systems, as well as other hazards. Large, complex operations should also have a full-time safety official to recommend and improve the safety plan. Smaller projects can have a part-time safety official. Supervisors should also be utilized in support of safety plans. If you notice safety hazards, you should report it to your supervisor and if necessary, to workers higher up in the chain.

If you are injured in a cave-in or any other situation at work, an experienced Massachusetts workers’ compensation attorney may be able to help you obtain benefits and advise you on next steps. Contact us by calling 800-367-0871 or using our online contact form.

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