Think It Can't Happen to You? How to Respond to a Trench Collapse

Here's a detailed checklist of things you and your crews should do if the unthinkable happens

Think It Can't Happen to You? How to Respond to a Trench Collapse

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Let’s assume your municipal crew has an excellent safety program. You’ve been trained and designated as the competent person on project excavation sites. All the workers on your crew have been appropriately trained. You use trench-protection systems on your job sites. You have an emergency plan in place, and so on.

Let’s also assume that a contractor at another site nearby the one you’re working on has taken a few shortcuts. Suddenly, one of that contractor’s workers comes yelling, “A man’s been buried! We need your help! There’s been a cave-in!”

What do you do? Here are some suggestions:

  • Stay calm.
  • Take charge of the job site until a trained team, headed by an “incident commander” (the term often used by firefighters and rescue/recovery teams), arrives.
  • Safely get everyone who is not trapped out of the trench. Account for all workers.
  • Call 911 and/or the company’s rescue team, and report the cave-in. If the construction site is difficult to find, designate someone to meet the trained rescuers at a readily identifiable address or landmark, and direct them to the cave-in location.
  • Keep everyone who is not directly involved in the rescue/recovery at least 100 feet from the trench or excavation.
  • Shut down all equipment, except pumps that are being used to remove water in the immediate vicinity of the cave-in.
  • Stop or reroute traffic that might create vibrations and cause a secondary cave-in.
  • Do not attempt to dig the victim out with a backhoe or excavator. Such equipment may further injure the victim.
  • Do not remove the victim’s tools or equipment. They can be helpful in locating the victim.

In addition, the following information should be gathered:

  • Number of workers trapped
  • Where the victim(s) was last seen
  • The time the cave-in occurred
  • The depth of the trench
  • The soil type
  • An estimate of how much soil has collapsed on the victim
  • The presence of any potentially harmful atmospheres
  • The location and condition of all underground utilities

There may be a very strong temptation to jump down into the trench and try to dig the victim out. Do not do it. Untrained or ill-equipped rescuers frequently become victims themselves from secondary cave-ins.

Of course, the one thing that’s better than all these measures is avoiding a cave-in in the first place. Do it right the first time, so that a rescue is never necessary.

Remember: Use protection. It will save your life.

About the Author

David Dow is co-founder of TrenchSafety and Supply — now part of Underground Safety Equipment, LLC — which supplies excavation safety products and services to construction, excavation, and utility companies. From its facilities in Kansas City, Missouri; Lafayette, Colorado; Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee; North Little Rock, Arkansas; Salt Lake City, Utah; and San Antonio, Texas, Underground Safety Equipment provides sales, rental equipment, repair service, and safety training. Dow is also chair of the Training Committee for the North American Excavation Shoring Association (NAXSA).

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