Whether they’re required for underground lines or as the first step for installing a foundation, excavation and trenching are essential, routine activities in the construction world. Just because they’re routine, however, doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous if executed incorrectly. An analysis conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that, between 1992 and 2000, trenching and excavation hazards in the construction trade resulted in 488 deaths. The consequences are too devastating to ignore, and companies of all sizes have a role to play in promoting excavation and trenching safety. We’ll explore simple tips and share some recent public awareness initiatives that have taken place around the country.
Excavation and Trenching Safety Tips
As part of their public education efforts, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has shared numerous useful resources about excavation and trenching safety.
A handy fact sheet from the organization outlines tips for adhering to OSHA excavation standards and ensuring a safe working environment for employees.
Among other guidelines, OSHA requires that:
- Trenches are inspected daily by a competent person prior to work being done on location. The competent person should also conduct inspections as conditions change at the excavation site. The term “competent person” refers to an individual who is trained to identify hazards and empowered to take corrective action.
- Heavy equipment and spoils are kept at a significant distance from the edge of the trench.
- Construction crews identify the location of underground utilities before they begin digging and avoid contact with those spots.
- Companies test for atmospheric hazards in excavation sites deeper than 4 feet.
- Employees wear highly visible clothing if they are working near traffic.
- Activities not be conducted beneath suspended materials.
Additionally, the OSHA excavation standards dictate that:
- Trenches between 0 and 5 feet deep may be determined by a competent person to not need a protective system.
- Trenches of 5 feet or more in depth require a protective system under most circumstances, depending on the type of rock in the excavation site.
- Trenches of 20 feet or more in depth need to have a protective system designed by a professional engineer or the system must meet other requirements to satisfy the standards.
These protective systems often follow a model that requires sloping, shoring and shielding. Such excavation and trenching safety practices help protect workers from cave-ins.
The protective system required for each excavation site will vary based on the soil composition where crews are digging.
While construction companies bear the greatest burden for ensuring excavation and trenching safety, it’s also important that workers feel emboldened to speak up if anything is amiss. They should feel comfortable assessing hazards and refusing to enter sites that are not properly inspected in a timely manner.
Actions to Take in Response to a Trench Collapse
While the best way to avoid a trench collapse is to follow the preventative measures outlined above, the next best defense for excavation and trench safety is to have a response plan developed in the event of the collapse. Establishing a plan and effectively communicating it to employees could save a life if the worst were to happen. In the event of a collapse, here are some tips to follow:
- Remain calm and take charge of the situation until a rescue team arrives.
- Remove any workers who are not trapped from the excavation site.
- Call 911 immediately. If a company rescue team is available, call them as well.
- Designate an individual to meet the emergency services or rescue squads at a designated location in order to direct them to the collapse site.
- Anyone not directly involved in the rescue & recovery efforts should maintain a safe distance from the trench area.
- Turn off all equipment, except for pumps being used to remove water from the dig site.
- Attempt to identify the number of trapped workers, where they were last seen, the time of collapse, and any other potential hazards in the area.
- Do not attempt to use an excavator, backhoe, or jump into the trench in an attempt to dig out trapped workers.
Overall, rescue and recovery efforts should be left to professionally trained personnel to handle the situation. Yet, the best way to handle a trench collapse is to avoid them entirely by following the proper excavation and trenching safety protocols.
It is important to familiarize and train all employees on how to manage trench collapses according to a response plan. Additionally, encouraging key employees to seek out additional training and certifications in excavation rescue is always a sound investment.
Recent Educational Initiatives for Promoting Excavation and Trenching Safety
Periodic efforts for raising awareness and increasing enforcement of the OSHA excavation standards can help improve safety for many companies and individuals.
In 2019, GX Contractor reported about how OSHA announced it would implement new instructions for a National Emphasis Program to improve excavation safety. The new features of the effort included a nationwide reporting system and put forth a mandate for the creation of regional outreach programs.
In Texas, a new partnership announced in February 2020 between the state’s Damage Prevention Council and OSHA is tasked with educating workplaces across the state about excavation and trenching safety.
The Benefits of Excavation and Trenching Safety for Companies Big and Small
No construction company is so small that the rules of excavation and trenching safety don’t apply to them. NIOSH’s analysis of work-related fatalities from cave-ins and other excavation hazards noted that 46% of the fatalities that occurred between 1992 and 2000 were in workplaces with 10 or fewer employees.
Ensuring that excavation sites are operating safely is the responsibility of all companies, no matter their size.