How Can a Manhole Accident Be Avoided?

picture of construction workers

When considering construction accidents, most people think of construction workers or pedestrians who are hurt by construction vehicles or fallen objects. Regardless of the reason, construction accidents happen every day. According to the Federal Highway Administration (FHA), a part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, over 20,000 construction workers are injured every year. This is reflected by the number of new Workers’ Compensation claims.

The FHA claims that many construction zone injuries are caused by workers coming in contact with construction equipment, construction vehicles, or various related objects. It would make sense that working a construction job has its risks, but when it comes to risks, only a minority of people consider about the danger of manholes.

Unfortunately, manhole accidents are real. They happen more than people think. A typical manhole cover is weighted to deter removal or theft, or to prevent damage. The sheer weight of a manhole cover, which is usually made from cast iron, could easily crush a foot, leg, or hand. The hole it covers also creates a unique problem. The drop if a person falls could cause serious personal injury or death.

Although there are many advances in safety for construction vehicles and equipment, including safety awareness that results in reflective clothing and routing traffic, manholes remain a serious health risk from operations that are outdated and outright dangerous. It is worth considering, therefore, what havoc manholes can play on construction workers and pedestrians alike.

How Are Manholes Used?

Manholes are used for accessing underground public utilities. These utilities, which include electricity, storm drains, sewage, and gas, require repeated inspection, repair, and, occasionally, replacement. Most manholes are covered by a cast iron cover of considerable weight, but some, such as precast concrete or grates, are much larger and heavier, requiring lifting by cranes or excavators.

What Are the Dangers of Working in or Around Manholes?

Manholes are part of what is considered a confined space because they lead to a confined space. With not much room to move around, it is much easier to suffer an injury in a manhole than most other work settings. Workers have been known to fall when climbing down them, fall while working in them, and fall in them from above. This is caused by human error, a lack of proper safety measures, or something that goes terribly wrong.

Quite often, manhole accidents are caused by the simple moving or resetting of the cover. With all the advanced equipment and procedures in construction, the operation of resetting manhole covers to grade for most projects has not changed.

When it is time to reset or replace manhole covers, it is usually done in bulk, replacing several manholes at once across a wide area. The normal procedure is for a group of workers to move quickly from one location to another, with a few workers using prybars to lift the cover while others replace the cement, brick, or whatever is needed to reset the manhole to grade. The shimming process, used to fill in gaps, is old and dangerous. It is often done using wood shims and can easily result in crushed hands and feet.

Once down inside a manhole, the job at hand for a construction or utility worker is a serious business. Besides the possibility of easily tripping and falling over pipes and other debris, or becoming injured from the use of equipment, the problem that a worker is trying to fix could present serious potential dangers.

Working on gas lines, for instance, requires extreme precautions. Igniting a natural gas line is a possibility. Losing consciousness or being exposed to dangerous chemicals or substances is also a major concern. However, in the case of an emergency when a worker needs to find a quick escape, a safe escape route is often not available.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) warns that sewer systems have many hazards that must be considered. According to an OSHA Fact Sheet, a sewer system can offer a number of confined space hazards. Some of these listed by OSHA include low oxygen, toxic or flammable gases, and chemicals found in underground pipes.  OSHA also warns about drowning, electrocution, and falling objects.

Another great concern is that too many workers are sent down a manhole without the proper support or training, and this is a frequent cause of injury. It has been suggested by several agencies, OSHA included, that proper training and updated procedures could prevent common construction accidents, manhole accidents included.

Underground explosions are not uncommon. Sometimes the result is a manhole cover that is catapulted into the air, and the cover inevitably must come down. The result of a manhole cover landing on a person leaves no room for misinterpretation: serious injury or death is the result. Sometimes a crane or other construction vehicle is used to lift a manhole cover or grid, and dropping one is also not uncommon.

How Can Pedestrians Get Hurt from Manholes?

Not only construction workers can fall victim to manholes. Pedestrians, and even animals, have been known to suffer manhole-related injuries or death. A manhole that is not properly covered or not covered at all could lead toward serious consequences for a pedestrian or animal if not noticed.

Tripping over an improperly set manhole cover is not difficult to do; people simply do not expect it. More dangerous is a manhole that has not been covered, usually because of human error. Sometimes a manhole that is not covered is not properly marked or not marked at all.

A person who does not notice an uncovered manhole, which could easily happen at night, could be subject to falling into one. People driving a vehicle over uncovered or improperly placed manhole covers could wind up in a car accident or experience damage to their vehicle.

What Steps Could Be Taken to Prevent Manhole Accidents?

Common sense is always the best medicine, and proper procedures when working in or around manholes promotes common sense. Good practice is to have workers take whatever precautions necessary to ensure safety. If a construction vehicle, such as a crane, is used to lift a manhole cover, no worker should be close to its position in case of a drop.

When workers are manually lifting and resetting manhole covers, the proper tools and procedures are critical. When working in a manhole, providing the property safety equipment and guides could save lives. Some of the safety provisions needed include a safety harness, protective clothing and footgear, ropes, certified breathing aids, helmets, and gloves.

Proper communication devices are also a necessity. It might be necessary for a worker to be evacuated quickly because of an emergency down below, such as a gas leak or potential explosion, so communication to the crew above is critical. It might also be necessary for above-ground workers to inform someone below of a potential danger.

Having ventilation blowers to provide clean air to workers should be required. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, as too many utility workers in emergency situations are not provided with these blowers. The most obvious way to prevent an accident is for all pipelines to be emptied before work begins. This is to keep dangerous gas or chemicals away from workers inside the hole.

The most important way to prevent an injury or save a life is always to be prepared. Workers should have a plan for safety but have a rescue plan as well. Also make sure that proper training is given to workers to execute the rescue, and that workers practice the procedures they are taught.

Preparation, of course, includes the proper training of workers to perform their jobs in an efficient and safe manner. It is also essential that a qualified individual assess the area in which work is to take place. This is to ensure that there are no potential or already existing hazards in the workspace, such as flammable or toxic substances, or poor oxygen levels, and that all emergency procedures are in place.


Baltimore Workers’ Compensation Lawyers at LeViness, Tolzman & Hamilton Represent Clients Injured in Manhole Accidents

If you have been injured in a manhole accident, or any construction accident, reach out to the experienced Baltimore Workers’ Compensation lawyers at LeViness, Tolzman & Hamilton. We will work endlessly to secure the compensation for which you are entitled. Call us today at 800-547-4LAW (4529) or contact us online to schedule a free consultation.

We have offices in Baltimore, Glen Burnie, and Prince George’s County, allowing us to represent clients in Maryland, including those in Anne Arundel CountyCarroll CountyHarford CountyHoward CountyMontgomery CountyPrince George’s CountyQueen Anne’s CountyMaryland’s Western CountiesSouthern Maryland and the Eastern Shore, as well as the communities of CatonsvilleEssexHalethorpeMiddle RiverRosedale, Gwynn OakBrooklandvilleDundalkPikesvilleParkvilleNottinghamWindsor MillLuthervilleTimoniumSparrows PointRidgewood, and Elkridge.