Most every day on the construction site for an excavation project begins with a quick discussion on safety with all team members, more commonly referred to as the Toolbox Talk. A daily morning Toolbox Talk is an effective way to educate operators, laborers, and other staff on safe ways to execute their work. While the superintendent most commonly delivers these Toolbox Talks, excavation contractors may opt to hire a safety expert that can also deliver the Toolbox Talks and take notes on how safety can be improved. Here are several Toolbox Talk topics to improve excavation job site safety.
When climbing in and out of equipment, on ladders, or going up or down stairs, excavation superintendents should enforce using three points of contact. This Toolbox Talk topic could cover maintaining two hands and one foot or one hand and two feet on the ladder/stairs/equipment at all times. Additionally, operators and laborers should not jump out of equipment, off of ladders or stairs, or into trenches or sewer structures.
Workers should always practice situational awareness while walking the excavation job site. One Toolbox Talk could be focused on walking on slick surfaces. When working on wet, frozen, or otherwise slick surfaces, especially during winter, practice walking like a penguin. This means taking shorter steps than usual to reduce the risk of slipping and falling.
Trip hazards should be clearly identified where possible with bright or fluorescent marking. Superintendents can discuss the color-coding as a Toolbox Talk topic. For example, an extension cord that is taped down with black electrical tape is much less visible than one taped down with fluorescent orange duct tape; this fluorescent orange duct tape could be used as a color-coded visual indicator of a potential trip hazard that catches the eye of the person walking by. Focus on using brighter colors such as yellow, orange, pink, cyan, or lime green and avoid dark greens and blues, blacks, and browns.
Proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Wear
Superintendents or safety officers should brief workers on proper PPE frequently. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) states that hard hats must be worn when there is a risk of head injury from falling or projecting objects. Excavation contractors should recommend and provide Type II hard hats for all workers that protect from head impacts from any direction; Type I hard hats only protect the top of the head.
Workers should wear Class 2 safety vests to cover heavy traffic and low visibility conditions. If the excavation job site is along a highly trafficked roadway or a high-speed roadway, a Class 3 vest should be worn.
Safety gloves or work gloves should be worn to protect from engine burns, lacerations, harmful chemicals, and other hazards.
Eye protection should be worn to protect the eyes from hazards including shrapnel or thrown rocks and soil. Safety glasses are appropriate for most applications, through safety goggles should be considered if any hazardous vapors or liquids are anticipated.
Hearing protection is a critical piece of PPE for any heavy equipment operator, as several hours per day are spent in close confines with a very loud piece of machinery. Most of the hearing protection devices Most hearing protection on the market are acceptable for protecting workers’ ears; the importance comes down to what workers will actually wear. It is recommended to keep a surplus of disposable foam earplugs on site. These are typically highly effective and cheap, although they can be uncomfortable for some users. Reusable molded earplugs are less effective than disposable foam earplugs, but they may be more comfortable for some users. Earmuffs may be the most comfortable depending on user preference and offer the added benefit of keeping ears warm in the winter, but some users with longer hair or glasses may find them cumbersome or that they don’t fit well. A combination of earmuffs and either reusable or disposable earplugs offers added protection.
Protective footwear is another critical piece of PPE for excavation contractors. The steel-toed boot is the first footwear that comes to mind, though composite-toed boots offer similar protection with a lighter weight. The lighter weight of the composite-toed boot can greatly reduce overall fatigue for workers who spend the majority of the day on their feet. Rubber boots with steel insoles can both insulate from electrical hazards and protect workers from puncturing their feet with exposed nails or other protruding objects. Waders protect workers who must wade through shallow waters from hazardous wildlife such as snakes and leeches; keeping your feet dry also protects from fungal infections.
Walking the Job Site
Walking the job site can be hazardous, especially on sites with multiple pieces of heavy equipment operating and if dump trucks are delivering or hauling away material. When walking in front of a piece of equipment or a vehicle, always make eye contact with the driver or operator and wait for them to acknowledge and wave you on before continuing in front of them. Never walk behind a running piece of equipment or vehicle. Ensure reflective PPE is worn at all times to increase the visibility of workers that may be walking the job site. Superintendents and safety officers may also institute a job site speed limit to ensure vehicles are not generating undue risk.
Excavation job sites are littered with terrain-related hazards. Anyone walking the job site should follow the recommendations in the Slips/Trips/Falls, Steep Slope Hazards, and Water Hazards sections for more specific safety measures in navigating these hazards on foot.
Steep Slope Hazards
Steep slopes generate a wide variety of hazards for workers. For stockpiled materials such as borrow piles, stone stockpiles, or other cut/fill material, avoid stockpiling at a slope greater than 1H:1V or the angle of repose for the soil type, whichever is shallower. The angle of repose is the natural slope that the uncompacted material rests at, which can be found in the geotechnical report. For permanent slopes such as berms and detention basins, never construct or compact slopes steeper than 3H:1V unless explicitly directed by an engineer. For excavations requiring slopes steeper than 1H:1V such as trenches, structure excavations, or dewatering operations, use shoring along the steep slopes to reduce the risk of collapse and worker injury.
Navigating steep slopes presents additional risks. When walking, walk down the slope at an angle to avoid picking up too much speed and tumbling down the slope. When operating or driving, go perpendicular to the slope (straight down) to reduce the risk of turning over the vehicle or equipment. This may require riding the brakes of some vehicles. The best practice is to avoid navigating steep slopes where possible.
Water generates a wide variety of risks and potential hazards on excavation job sites. From freezing to drowning to wildlife, water drastically increases risk on projects. The simplest way to mitigate the risk of water on job sites is to avoid it unless necessary. If workers can’t see the bottom of the water feature, they should assume that it is deep until probing with a rod or another device proves otherwise. Never work alone near water, as having someone to assist or alert someone to an accident is highly recommended. When workers must walk in water, ensure the depth is manageable and provide insulated waders, preferably hip-waders, that protect from both cold and wetness.
Additionally, venomous snakes such as water moccasins tend to gravitate toward wet areas. To mitigate venomous snakes near wet areas, make the area undesirable for snakes to live/roam there (assuming the area is not a protected wetland). Keeping grasses well-trimmed, mounting a plastic owl, and ensuring any wood or rock piles are not located near waters will aid in reducing snake populations.
As noted above, wildlife can generate a wide variety of risks on an excavation job site. Educate workers on what venomous snakes and spiders are located in the area and provide picture identification to remove any doubt. Ensure workers do not touch wildlife, do not attempt to make pets of wildlife, and do not attempt to hit wildlife with equipment (don’t hit a deer with a dump truck to stock the freezer). These behaviors can lead to a variety of harmful consequences including bites, scratches, and impalement as well as the risk of disease and the risk of fines from Departments of Environmental Management and negative press from organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
Another safety measure is to ensure it is known who has anaphylactic allergies to certain allergens such as bees or peanuts and to keep an epinephrine injector, or epi-pen, in the job trailer and with the at-risk individuals. For example, a worker allergic to bees should carry an epi-pen with them in the event of a sting.
Emergency plans should frequently be briefed to workers and evaluated by safety personnel to ensure the policies reflect the job site conditions. Class A/B/C fire extinguishers should be provided in all pieces of equipment to mitigate equipment and common job site fires while Class D and Class E fire extinguishers should be located in a known area on-site in the event of a metals fire and electrical fire, respectively. For structure fires, a safety plan should be in place with all workers in the area reporting to a designated location to verify no one remains inside the burning structure. Superintendents and safety officers should also identify storm shelters and brief procedures for responding to inclement weather such as tornados and lightning.
An active shooter plan should also be identified and taught. In the event of an active shooter, workers should attempt to evacuate, hide, and take action against the shooter, in that order. Excavation job sites are typically fairly open, so escape in a vehicle is probable. If not, hiding and barricading inside a trailer, connex, or piece of equipment is appropriate. Taking action against the shooter should be only as a last resort. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security provides more descriptive and complete details for active shooter planning.