Being partially buried, then excavated = Death from shock?

Unfortunately, a construction worker died today in downtown Toronto because he was in a trench that collapsed. Initial gossip circulating around my office described the victim as only partially buried, and we were trying to figure out why this would be fatal.

This sparked a half-remembered talk from a high school teacher, who told my class about the following hypothetical scenario:

  1. Construction worker working with gravel, or soil, etc, inside of a pit.
  2. Something goes wrong, and the guy is partially buried by the gravel/soil, up to the middle of his torso. His shoulders and head are unburied and unharmed.
  3. People named Opal are greeted.
  4. Construction worker’s colleagues panic and dig him out rapidly.
  5. Construction worker dies of mysterious shock after being unearthed.

The moral of the story was to leave a partially buried person buried until medical help could be summoned to counteract the effects of unearthing.

I’ve tried Googling similar details and I’ve come up with nothing. Has the Straight Dope heard of this cause of death? Do you know of the actual mechanism, or have cites for examples?

If you cannot expand your chest you cannot breathe. The sooner you allow a person to breathe the better. Loose gravel or sand can act like a constricter in that each time you exhale it will fill in the gap not allowing you to inhale. I don’t know the effect it would have on blood vessels.

The closest I can come to confirming it is to note that it’s possible there are injuries like stab wounds or deep cuts caused by the collapse, and that pressure on the injured body part is restricting the amount of blood loss. Once rescued, the pressure is released and blood loss would resume at full speed. Since a bunch of construction guys are unlikely to know much about stopping blood loss and they wouldn’t know about the problem until after digging out their buddy, it would make sense to wait until medical personnel have arrived.

I’ve heard about that sort of thing happening with people seriously injured by trucks/trains and pinned underneath - The pressure is either holding wounds closed, or preventing internal bleeding - when they are released, they either bleed to death or blood pressure drops to the point that their whole system collapses.

I seem to recall it being called something like release shock, or similar.

However, I believe it’s true that the most common cause of death for people accidentally buried in construction trenches is dismemberment or decapitation by their would-be rescuers - in the desperate frenzy to dig the trapped individual out, it seems they often resort to the use of heavy digging machinery.

Well, that’s pretty disturbing and gruesome. Wouldn’t that be the sort of thing construction workers are aware of, though? Everything is “safety first” nowadays and I get the impression traditionally dangerous places like construction sites are all about safety procedures. Just out of pure morbid curiosity, do you have a cite?

There has been a thread in the past about this, and I think one of our resident docs stated the cause of death could be the sudden release in the bloodstream of some kind of biological byproduct causing some organ failure or another. Can’t be more accurate, sorry.

Reflow syndrome is a potentially fatal condition that can occur after blood pools in a part of the body (typically the legs) for a prolonged period, such as during suspension trauma. Toxins build up in the pooled blood, and when it returns to the body (for instance, when the patient is allowed to lie down), serious problems or death can occur.

This definition is given for suspension in fall protection harnesses and the use of a shock strap to help release the constriction of blood flow helps overcome this syndrome.
There is a large amount of acidic blood that can return to circulation weather from being buried of suspended.

Another candidate – crush syndrome:

Crush syndrome is it. Can result in a runaway process of rhabdomyolysis.

Now I think about it, it can’t be the most common cause of death in cases of sudden accidental burial - that’s almost certainly going to be suffocation or crush type trauma.

However, I am fairly sure that injury by rescuers is frequent enough to have common themes about it.
It’s not something that construction workers are likely to have protocols for, because usually, if someone has been buried alive in a trench, it’s because safety protocols about the trench itself have already been ignored - you’re not meant to have methods of digging people out safely - you’re meant to have methods of ensuring they don’t get buried in the first place; shoring up the sides with boards and props, etc.

Here are a couple of examples of the thing I described

I know I’ve heard of other cases of this - including one quite local to me (which is partly why I am aware of the topic) - but my Google-Fu is weak today.

Here’s a safety document that alleges rescuer-caused death is common:

Ouch, it must suck being the guy who tried to help but ended up decapitating your friend.