With the exception of an experienced, OSHA certified backhoe operator, most construction workers don’t realize how dangerous it is to climb down into a trench, even as shallow as three or four feet. OSHA requires the side walls of a trench of a depth of four feet be supported with a properly constructed plywood wall, equal to the height of the trench.

In addition to requiring wooden supports, OSHA instructs everyone working in the trench to notify the backhoe operator there are people in the trench. OSHA cautions workers not to come anywhere near the bucket of the backhoe while in operation. Never approach the bucket of the backhoe unless the machine is turned off. The hazards associated with trenching include trench collapse and being struck by the swinging bucket.  

During my 36 years of representing workers injured in construction accidents, the saddest case I have handled involved a trench collapse accident. In that case, an 18 year old apprentice landscaper was working part time for a small residential home builder. The house construction was nearly finished; all plumbing was installed, including the sewer line that ran from the basement to the street. The landscaping contractor hired by the GC to lay seed and plant shrubbery had rented a small Bobcat excavator, and was transporting trees in the bucket in front of the house that was being inspected.

Inside, the GC’s site superintendent and the building inspector were conducting the final walk through when they discovered the sewer line was completely blocked. In an effort to clear the sewer line and complete the inspection, the site superintendent approached the boy and ordered him to immediately dig up the sewer line. The boy had only operated the backhoe a few times previously and had never dug a deep trench. He knew nothing of the OSHA regulations governing trenching. He was unaware of the hazards caused by trenching loosely compacted dirt which the early spring rains had turned into thick mud and clay. This type of soil is very unstable.

After making a few passes with the bucket, the boy hit the top of the sewer line. At that point, the boy got off the machine, grabbed a shovel, and jumped into the trench and removed the remaining dirt from around the pipe. The trench was only about four feet deep, and the side walls appeared to be firm.  

Not knowing the hazardous situation he had placed himself in, the boy got down on his hands and knees and, by hand, brushed away the remaining dirt. In this crouched position, the boy’s head was now lower than the top of the trench wall.     Tragically, while in this crouched position, the trench walls suddenly caved in, and with the weight of the mud on top of him, the boy was pushed face down in the trench. Like being caught in an avalanche, although only covered with less than a foot of dirt, the boy could not get his arms under him to push his head up to breathe.

According to the pathologist’s report, it took about three or four minutes for the boy to suffocate. Of course, the general contractor settled the lawsuit immediately, but the money gave little solace to the boy’s devastated parents.