Trenching and Excavation Safety Tips
A Q&A with ClickSafety’s Director of Compliance, Rolando Cedillo, MSE, NREMT, CSP.
Trenching and excavation work exposes construction site workers to extremely dangerous hazards.
In July, OSHA warned of increased scrutiny, fines, and penalties for those who do not comply with their trenching and excavation standards in a press release, after a staggering 22 fatalities in the first half of 2022—up 68% from 2021. Sadly, every one of these tragedies so far could have been prevented had OSHA trenching and excavation standards been met.
So, what can you do to ensure you are following the standards and mitigating your risk?
We sat down with ClickSafety’s Director of Compliance, Rolando Cedillo, to get answers:
Q: What are the trench and excavation safety measures OSHA is putting in place?
A: There are no new regulations but there is a new push for enforcement—the implementation of a National Emphasis Program (NEP) for trenching and excavations, to reduce or eliminate workplace hazards. Compliance Safety and Health Officers will be conducting inspections under this NEP when they observe an open trench or excavation, regardless of whether a violation is observed or not.
For employers, it is your responsibility to ensure protections are in place every time your employees work near or in a trench. You should be familiar with the standards and seek training for you and your workers.
For workers, it comes down to understanding safe work and how to protect yourself and your coworkers from the associated risks. This includes Stop Work, workers’ right to refuse dangerous work.
Q: What are the common trenching-related hazards?
A: Trench collapses or cave-ins pose the greatest risk and are more likely than some other excavation-related incidents to result in worker fatalities. Trench collapses have many causes, but typically you see issues stemming from:
- Soil & Above Ground Weight. Placing heavy loads, such as soil piles, too close (less than 2 feet) to the sides of an excavation, driving equipment or allowing traffic in close vicinity to a trench.
- Weather or Temperature Changes. A change in weather conditions like heavy rain or frost can make the jobsite unsuitable for work. Soil drying out due to moisture leaving openings in soil, known as sloughing, can also create trenching hazards
- Soil Stability. An excavation in unstable soil, or in soil that has been dug in before.
There are factors in trenching safety that we can control, and some we cannot (like weather). One factor most trench-related incidents have in common is that OSHA trenching and excavation requirements were not followed. This includes incidents caused by inadequate oversight by a competent person, lack of understanding of OSHA standards and where they apply.
Often shoring, sloping, and shielding requirements are misunderstood, and the incorrect protective systems are put into place for the depth of the excavation. Not taking proper precautions for employee safety, entry/egress, site control during lifting or entry tasks are other common violations that lead to incidents. That is why it is imperative all jobsite personnel be able to identify trench and excavation hazards, know the appropriate safety measures, and have the personnel and safety equipment available to execute the work safely.
Q: How can I prevent injury from a trench collapse?
A: Death and serious injury due to collapse or cave-in poses a significant risk for construction workers but can easily be prevented by implementing proper protective measures. NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) noted 137 fatalities between 2011-2018, that is a rate of 20 excavation and trench cave-ins per year. OSHA specifies that employers ensure there is a safe way to enter and exit the trench while utilizing one of three primary protective systems:
- Sloping (or benching) the sides of the excavation
- Shoring the sides of the excavation with supports; or
- Shielding the side of the excavation from the work area
OSHA has assistance available for employers who need help complying—outreach programs, safety summits, and online resources.
Workers can contact their local OSHA or state plan office if their employer requires working in or beside trenches that are not sloped, shored, or shielded and are five feet in depth or deeper.
Q: Any trench safety tips I should consider before starting a job?
A: The law states that employers must prevent danger to workers in or near excavation sites. Before a job begins, employers should:
Prepare and plan.
Far too many incidents result from inadequate planning. You should learn as much as possible about the jobsite and the materials needed to perform the work safely and in compliance with OSHA standards.
Here are some job planning measures employers should consider:
- Determine what type of protective system(s) and safety equipment will be needed for the job and ensure it is ready before work starts.
- Different soil types require different protective systems so evaluating the soil to determine stability is necessary.
- Consider preparing a job layout to identify safe locations away from trenches for spoil piles and heavy equipment paths.
- Identify all hazards including atmospheric hazards – low oxygen or hazardous fumes at or greater than 4 feet.
For employees, there are 5 main safety precautions you can take prior to starting work in a trench:
- Ensure you have a safe entry and exit point
- Check that the trench has cave-in protection
- Confirm heavy materials and equipment are not too close to the edge of the trench
- Look for standing water and be cautious of environmental hazards like snow, rain, wind, etc.
- Never enter a trench unless it has been inspected first by a competent person
Identify and designate a “competent person.”
OSHA requires a “competent person” on the jobsite– what does that mean? A competent person (CP) is an onsite employee who can identify existing and predictable trenching hazards, can identify working conditions that are unsanitary, hazardous, or dangerous to employees, and has the authority to take prompt corrective measures to eliminate them.
To ensure the right precautions are in place, the competent person you choose must inspect before construction begins, daily before each shift, throughout the shift and following rain or other hazard-forming events. Do not start work until the construction site is safe.
Competent person training is an important ongoing safety measure to ensure your competent person can identify existing and predictable workplace conditions that create a hazardous, unsanitary, and/or dangerous site for workers. There is also competent person training designed specifically for supervisors, managers, and owners on how to choose a person or persons to act as the competent person with detailed knowledge of excavation safety on the job site.
Get proper training.
The best way to prevent injuries, fatalities, and avoid citations is to provide adequate trench safety training—for both workers and employers.
While some construction job sites encounter trenching and excavation on a regular basis, others may only engage in these activities occasionally. Whatever the case may be, construction employers and employees alike must be prepared with the proper knowledge of how to maintain safety throughout any project.
ClickSafety offers a range of Trenching courses and Excavation courses that can help you and your employees understand the appropriate safety measures for OSHA standards 29 CFR 1926.650, 29 CFR 1926.651, and 29 CFR 1926.652.
Online safety training from ClickSafety is a convenient, cost-effective way to keep informed and safe—so you can protect yourself and others from unnecessary injuries.