One Roll of the Dice Could Cost a Worker’s Life

Our industry is making progress, but workers are still being fatally injured by trench cave-ins. The No. 1 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 because the last couple of years the number of workers who have been buried by a cave-in has almost doubled. As for this year, the construction industry is off to a poor start and it needs to stop.

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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-ft (4-ft 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. Workers’ 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 crap shoot: one roll of the dice could cost a worker’s life.

There have been too many cave-ins that have killed or seriously injured workers already this year. Many of these workers are under the age of 30, not that it really matters how old a person is when buried alive in a trench. The only way this is going to stop is if contractors, municipalities and other employers whose workers must enter a trench provide and insist on the use of shoring, shields or sloping before workers enter into the trench.

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As leaders in underground construction, NUCA members must recognize the importance of protecting workers in the trenches. Protective systems are readily available all over the country. They are available for purchase or rental, and OSHA knows it. Workers are still being killed or seriously injured and the sad part is these accidents are preventable. However, some contractors, municipalities and other employers still fail to heed the warnings.

Manufacturers of trench shoring and shields have stepped-up and engineered protective systems to handle even the toughest trenching operations. The equipment is lightweight, 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 you don’t need to purchase a system you can rent one. If you need help, contact the manufacturer or rental company and they will help you find what you need.

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Statistics show that workers are killed more often on jobsites where there is no competent person (CP), 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 $123K per willful violation. More importantly, when a hazardous situation exists, like an unprotected trench, workers are in danger and could be buried alive.

Don’t just train the competent person(s), train workers too. Many NUCA members are not only sending their competent persons to NUCA’s Excavation Safety and Competent Person training, they are sending all their workers. Why? Because they are supposed to provide trench safety training for workers too and they realize the benefits of workers knowing what the competent person knows. Sure, the average laborer or pipe layer may not need as much training as the CP but employers know that if a worker completes a NUCA course, he or she will walk away with a solid understanding of what OSHA requires employers to do and the CP’s responsibility, in addition to the potential hazards and how to protect themselves and their co-workers. Bottom line, everyone is reading from the same page.

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From June 18-23, NUCA will be holding its third 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 workers 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 workers and to save some lives.

OSHA has informed me that they will be updating and re-emphasizing their high emphasis program for excavations this year, which means they will continue to show up at any trench or excavation job site at any time without a warrant. 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 workers should have to put their lives on the line by entering an unprotected trench. Let’s continue to take the lead and protect workers. 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 workers. Let’s continue to live up to our slogan: We Dig America Safely.

For more information on NUCA’s Trench Safety Stand Down got to

George Kennedy is NUCA’s vice president of safety.

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