Don’t Gamble With Trench Safety

trench safety

Our industry is making progress, but employees are still being fatally injured by trench cave-ins. The number one rule of excavation safety is to use a trench protective system: sloping, shoring, or shield (trench box). We call them the Three S’s of Trench Safety.

When it comes to providing protective systems, OSHA is not pulling any punches. The violations are considered willful because OSHA officials believe that contractors who dig trenches know protective systems are required. They are especially concerned about trench safety due to the highest number of trench related fatalities in 2022 in more than two decades.

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Though trenches and excavations on most jobs do not cave-in, there is no way of telling when it will happen. A cave-in may occur while your crew digs the trench, an hour or two after the trench is dug, the next day, or even a week later.

No worker should ever be permitted or expected to enter into a trench more than 5-feet (4-feet in some states) deep that is not equipped with a protective system. Placing a worker in this type of situation, even for a minute, risks the worker’s life and well-being because you cannot predict when a trench wall is going to fail.

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The threat of large penalties and criminal action should not be the only reason a contractor should comply with OSHA trenching rules. Employees’ lives are on the line whenever they enter an unprotected trench, even for a moment. Working in a trench without a protective system is a gamble at best: one roll of the dice could cost a worker’s life.

There have been too many cave-ins that have taken the lives or seriously injured employees each year over the last few. The only way this is going to stop is if contractors, municipalities, and other employers whose employees must enter a trench provide and insist on the use of shoring, shields, or sloping before employees enter a trench.

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As leaders in underground construction, NUCA members must recognize the importance of protecting employees in the trenches. Protective systems are readily available all over the country, including through NUCA’s national partners. They are available for purchase or rental, and OSHA knows it. Trench related fatalities are almost completely preventable. However, somehow these warnings are still ignored.

Manufacturers of trench shoring and shields have stepped-up and engineered protective systems to handle even the toughest trenching operations. The equipment is light weight, easy to use, easy to transport, adaptable to different trench depths and widths, and budget friendly. There are systems for almost every situation and if the situation is not one your company faces often, you can easily rent the solution required. If you need help figuring out what’s required for any given situation, there are many NUCA National and Chapter members throughout the country who can easily assist you in locating precisely what you need.

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Statistics show that employees are killed more often on jobsites where there is no competent person, which is an OSHA requirement for all trench jobs. The competent person must have the necessary training about the OSHA Excavation Standard – Subpart P and how to identify and control hazardous conditions. NUCA’s competent person training program provides this information and a lot more. However, the competent person needs the right equipment to provide a safe place to work and must have the authority to take immediate corrective action to make the job safe. Otherwise, OSHA will not consider him or her competent. Failure to take corrective action when a hazard exists can result in severe OSHA penalties – as much as $156,259 per violation as of 2023. More importantly when a hazardous situation exists, like an unprotected trench, employees are in danger and could be buried alive.

Don’t just train the competent person(s), train employees too. Many NUCA members are not only sending their Competent Persons to NUCA’s Excavation Safety and Competent Person (CP) training, but they are also sending all their employees. Why? Because they are supposed to provide trench safety training for employees too and they realize the benefits of employees knowing what the competent person knows. While the average laborer or pipelayer may not need as much training as a CP, employers know that if an employee completes a NUCA course, they will walk away with a solid understanding of what OSHA requires employers to do, as well as what a CP’s responsibilities are, in addition to the potential hazards and how to protect themselves and their co-employees. Effective training will ensure everyone will be on the same page.

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From June 17 to June 23, 2024, NUCA will be holding its annual Trench Safety Stand Down. During this week we are asking all contractors and employers who have any involvement with digging trenches or excavations to hold a TSSD. During the stand-down we are asking employers to remind and educate their employees about the dangers of entering an unprotected trench. We are also asking NUCA members and their chapters to reach out to their friends, subcontractors, municipalities, other contractors who dig, and other associations asking them to hold a TSSD. Our goal is to educate employees and to save lives.

OSHA will likely continue their high focus on excavations this year and into the future, so long as the numbers of fatalities remain as high as they are. That means they will continue to show up at any trench or excavation job site at any time. If OSHA shows up at your jobsite and sees an unprotected trench, there will be no excuses and very possibly willful citations.

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Even more important, there is no reason employees should have to put their lives on the line by entering an unprotected trench. Let’s continue to take the lead and protect employees. Promote trench safety, pass the word to those who think that providing a protective system is not necessary or too expensive to protect the lives of employees. Let’s continue to Dig America Safely.

For more information on NUCA’s 2024 Trench Safety Stand Down, go to Tags: