ES - The Dangers of Digging

Posted by Katie Breeden on Jun 21, 2018

Trenching and excavation are extremely hazardous workTrench safety has been all over the news lately. While some headlines celebrate wins, like the North Dakota Safety Council’s partnership with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to increase awareness of trenching hazards, many more are about losses. OSHA reports that "excavating is recognized as one of the most hazardous construction observations," and trench collapse is the primary danger. Recent crises include a South Florida utility company involved in a trench related death after previous workplace safety violations and the investigation of a construction company and a staffing agency in Tennessee. With these recent events and National Safety Month in mind, now is the time to improve workplace safety and refocus on efforts to prevent trench collapses.

Steps to Take

To be safe and compliant with OSHA standards, a “competent” person on your team must be identified. Per OSHA, this individual “must be capable of identifying existing and predictable hazards or working conditions that are hazardous, unsanitary, or dangerous to employees and who is authorized to take prompt corrective measures to eliminate or control these hazards and conditions.” Ultimately, the competent person will be responsible for managing the trench site and its workers’ safety and taking action if conditions are subpar.

Inspections must take place daily and prior to work entry of an excavation site, after rainstorms, and as needed throughout shifts or after other hazardous events. The competent individual will need to look for indications of possible cave-ins, failure of protective systems, hazardous atmospheres and other hazardous conditions. Should anything appear wrong, they must be able to take action accordingly.

Inspections should study the soil and protect it accordingly. Soil analysis is to be done by the competent person both visually and manually. Soil type and the appropriate cave-in protection will need to be identified as well. Sloping, trench boxes and shoring are all available methods, but their use should correspond with the right soil type.

It’s easy to fall into a routine, but organizations must play by the rules. Pay special attention to OSHA’s requirements and policies for trenching and excavation safety, such as hiring a registered professional engineer to design trenches at a depth of 20 feet or greater. Stay up to date with standards too, as they are updated regularly. Additionally, even if an employee is not the designated competent person, they should still actively monitor their trench and excavation environment for:

  • Surface encumbrances
  • Access and egress
  • Hazardous atmospheres
  • Adjacent structures

Enforcing these trench and excavation safety standards and following the routine procedures is critical to control workplace hazards—but it doesn’t have to be done solo. In fact, it can be mutually beneficial to include other organizations so resources can be shared. An OSHA alliance builds awareness and allows for collaboration between organizations on training. The news story mentioned above involving the North Dakota Safety Council and OSHA teamwork also included Workforce Safety and Insurance, Associated Builders and Contractors of North Dakota, and Associated General Contractors of North Dakota. Other collaborations include the upcoming Trench Safety Stand Down, sponsored by the National Utility Contractors Association (NUCA), the North American Excavation and Shoring Association (NAXSA), and the Safety Ambassadors Club. Alliances and events like these help bring resources together and garner more attention for the cause.

Final Words

The consequences of improper trench and excavation work can be fatal. The environmental, health and safety magazine EHS Today reports that two excavation and trench workers are killed every month, “a fatality rate that is 112% higher than the rate for general construction.” Taking shortcuts in this field comes at a price no one should have to pay. Every employee should be able to go home to their family at the end of the day. So whether you’re a contract worker, the designated “competent” individual overseeing the worksite or top level management, now is the time to make sure you are taking the necessary steps to ensure trenching and excavation safety.

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Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Chris Willis via