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What are my legal options if I was injured or lost a loved one in a construction trench accident?

New York Workers' Compensation

If you work in excavation or inside the deep trenches of New York, you may be putting your life on the line each day to earn a living. Trenches are among the most dangerous worksites in the construction industry. They are typically no wider than 15 feet and are usually much deeper than they are wide.

Trenches that aren't properly safeguarded and inspected are prone to disaster. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 97 trench worker deaths across the United States from 2013 to 2017 — more than 30 of which occurred in 2016. On average, that's about 19 deaths per year.

The majority of trench worker fatalities (45) occurred at industrial construction sites. Another 35 happened at private residences, and 28 at street and highway construction sites.

Once a collapse occurs, workers have no time to escape. As little as one cubic yard of soil can weigh more than 3,000 lbs, which is more than enough weight to crush or suffocate workers. Trench sites are simply too hazardous for companies to compromise safety to leverage time and cost. Even when safeguards are put in place, there is no room for error.

Safeguards that should be taken to prevent collapses

Before the job begins:

  • Construction and excavation companies should ensure that a trained and qualified person is designated to ensure that safety measures are employed.
  • Utility lines should be marked. This can be done by calling 811.
  • A qualified person should evaluate the soil for its stability. This should be done daily since soil conditions can frequently change.
  • Ensure that a safe location for soil piles and heavy equipment is designated away from the trench.
  • A qualified person should determine the type of protective system that will be put in place. Installation should be scheduled and completed before workers are allowed to enter the trench.
  • If a trench is more than 20 feet deep, a competent person must either:
    • consult a registered professional engineer to design a protective system that best fits the trench site, or
    • choose a manufactured protective system with the appropriate depth rating for the trench.
  • Ensure that all trench workers are at least 18 years of age.
  • Ensure that all trench workers receive adequate and easy-to-understand safety training.
  • Develop and establish an emergency action plan, which should include contact information for workers.

Protective systems that should be put in place

If a trench is over five feet deep, construction companies must ensure that a protective system is put in place. According to OSHA, these include:

  • Benching: Horizontal steps along trench walls to prevent soil from caving in.
  • Sloping: Trench walls are dug at an angle to prevent caving in.
  • Shoring: An aluminum hydraulic support system is used to hold trench walls in place.
  • Shielding: A box-like structure is used to hold trench walls in place.

Slim chances of surviving a trench collapse

The majority of trench collapses result in fatalities, so survival is unlikely. If you do survive a trench collapse, you will likely sustain severe, and potentially permanent, injuries.

By law, injured workers in New York are entitled to workers' compensation benefits to cover medical expenses and lost wages. Permanent injuries and disabilities may be covered through long-term disability benefits. If you're the spouse or close relative of a worker who was killed in a trench collapse, you may also be eligible for benefits.

To learn more, contact Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano LLP Attorneys At Law. Our legal team serves clients in NYC and throughout the state of New York.

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