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Simple Tips to Reinforce Trench Safety Programs

By Christine Torres

Danger sign warns of open trench

When a trench caves in or collapses, employees can be seriously or fatally injured in a matter of seconds. After four previous violations for failing to protect workers from trench collapse hazards, it was the fifth time that was the charm. During a visit by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration of Texas, pipe-laying workers were seen entering and exiting an unprotected trench. It was this blatancy that landed the Texas contractor on the federal Severe Violators Enforcement Program, for not protecting employees against cave-ins and for failing to train employees in safe trench work practices.

"This company has once again put their employees at serious risk by failing to provide training and implement required trenching protections," said OSHA representative Diego Alvarado. "Unprotected trenches can be fatal, and it is fortunate that no one was injured."

Trench Deaths Increase

Chart of trench work fatality statistics

OSHA notes that trenching injuries and fatalities are on the rise. In August 2018, two employees died while performing trenching activities at a Miami worksite. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show that 130 fatalities in trenching and excavation operations between 2011 and 2016, with 104 of those fatalities occurring in the construction industry. There were 23 construction workers killed in trench collapses in 2016, exceeding the combined total from 2014 and 2015, OSHA reports.

These statistics are prompting OSHA representatives in several states, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi, to reach out to excavation employers, related industry associations, equipment suppliers, and utility companies, among others. The goal is to expand outreach and education on trench hazards and safety best practices through OSHA’s new National Emphasis Program (NEP) for Trenching and Excavation. Information from the trenching and excavation compliance investigations will be entered into a national recording system.

Support Safety

As part of the NEP’s free resources, OSHA has new agency guidance for compliance with 29 CFR Part 1926, Subpart P, including a new quick-reference card, stickers, and a poster – all available in English and Spanish. A trench safety summit was held for about 400 people in October in Colorado. The event was held to place an emphasis on the new program and resources. The important takeaways from the safety summit included three processes for safe trenching:

  • Slope or bench trench walls: Cut back the trench wall at an angle, inclined away from the excavation.
  • Shore trench walls: Install supports to prevent soil movement.
  • Shield trench walls: Use trench boxes or other supports to prevent ground cave-ins.

While these trenching steps and proper training help protect workers from cave-ins, still more can be done to reinforce safety. Employers and workers should take time to ensure required protections are in place. Prior to any work, employees should be prepared site-wide using a pre-inspection safety checklist. In many cases, visual cues would be helpful to workers. For example, warnings and open trench signage can help ensure that workers are aware of the hazards around them, and directional cues can clearly mark exits and entrances.

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