Buried alive

July 15th, 2008 by Julie Ferguson

What could be more horrifying than the idea of being buried alive? It’s the stuff of nightmares. novels, and scary movies, tapping into one of our most primal fears. Yet unfortunately, buried alive is not just the stuff of fiction. Every year, it’s the same old story – collapsing trenches kill workers at both commercial and residential work sites. Deaths are sometimes caused by asphyxiation or drowning when trenches fill with soil or water. It’s also quite common for workers to die from being crushed by the sheer weight of the soil – which can exert pressure of more than two tons per cubic foot of dirt. Sometimes, workers are alive and talking while they are being rescued only to die during or shortly after the rescue, succumbing to injuries from the sheer pressure of the weight, which compresses the chest and cuts off oxygen to muscles and extremities.

News reports often focus on desperate rescue efforts with co-workers and emergency crews frantically digging to free a trapped colleague – yet many of the deaths happen when workers jump in an unsecured trench to try to save a colleague and a secondary collapse occurs. Trench rescues require speed and expertise – trained rescue workers understand the risks to both the endangered worker and to rescue workers. Before a rescue can safely occur, the site must be secured – something that should have happened before the collapse. Time is critical because even when a worker’s head or upper torso is visible, irreversible crushing injuries can occur in less than 10 minutes.

These are immensely frustrating deaths because they are preventable with proper safety precautions – but all too often, time and budget trump safety. Breathless news coverage often refers to the accidents as freak events but that implies that the event couldn’t have been anticipated or prevented. Unfortunately, there is nothing unusual about the collapse of an unsecured trench – without proper safety precautions, any excavation over 5 feet which is deeper than it is wide is a problem waiting to happen.

Workplace trench safety: Related resources and postings

OSHA – Trenching and Excavation
OSHA Trench Safety Quick Card (PDF)
OSHA Confined Spaces
Excavations: A guide to safe work practices – 20 minute video clip from WorkSafeBC
Trench safety publications and information

Call Before You Dig – resources for nonprofessionals

In addition to being at risk for trench collapses, the do-it-yourself who tackles home improvement projects may face electrocution and other risks when digging is involved. A new, federally-mandated national Call Before You Dig 811 number was created to help protect homeowners from unintentionally hitting underground utility lines while working on digging projects. In addition, each state has
different rules and regulations governing digging, some stricter than others – state-by-state requirements can also be found at the 811-dig link.

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