There’s No Reason to Die in a Trench

open trench sign

Trench-related accidents and fatalities are an industry-wide problem and are everyone’s responsibility because when workers are killed or injured, workers and their families and friends suffer. It also affects their co-workers, their companies, and even our industry. So, what can be done?

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NUCA has been promoting the importance of trench safety for at least 25 years. When members have expressed concerns about various safety problems they have encountered, NUCA has tried to help them find solutions. Since 1990, NUCA has made Excavation Safety and Competent Person Training Programs available through a national network of NUCA-approved instructors.

Collectively, the instructors have trained more the 250,000 managers, foremen and workers from both member and nonmember companies. NUCA instructors have provided training to construction, municipal, maintenance, and other workers who work in and around excavations.

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NUCA needs its members and others reading this article to become proactive and take on the role of trench safety ambassadors. Your employees need your help to reduce the number of injuries and fatalities. In addition to following best practices regarding trench safety at your jobsites, we ask you to reach out to other companies, municipalities and others who are involved in trenching and excavation work. Teach them the requirements and trench safety practices that will protect their workers from being killed by a trench or excavation cave-in. Help them to understand how dangerous it is to enter an unprotected trench.

Working in the trenches is dangerous work. I know it. You know it. But it is critical that our employees also know it. The list of fatalities clearly shows these deaths occurred in different types of situations, not just utility construction. We need you to share your expertise about trench safety and tell them where they can learn more about what should be done to keep workers safe in trenches and excavations. For example, the next time you provide a competent person training program to members of your crews, invite your sub-contractors, local plumbers, municipal workers, fire department and/or maintenance people at the local plant to attend. If your chapter is offering competent person training, make sure to reach out beyond the membership because it is all about saving lives. Some will say municipalities don’t have to comply with OSHA, and in some states, this is true, but it does not mean these workers don’t need to understand and follow safe trenching practices. After all, the life of a plumber or municipal worker is no less valuable than the life of a utility construction worker; that worker could be a friend or neighbor.

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Best Practices to Share with Your Crews and Other Employers

  • Require all your foremen and those of your subcontractors to attend a competent person trench safety program.
  • Provide trench safety training to all workers who work in or around trenches and excavations.
  • Assign an Excavation Competent Person to every excavation job, no matter how deep, to oversee the safety of the job. Trench and excavation jobs must be inspected daily and as often as may be necessary to ensure they remain safe throughout the day. Workers must not enter the trench or excavation until the competent person says it is safe to enter.
  • Install a protective system — sloping, shoring or shield — in all excavations and trenches 5 ft or more in depth (some states require protection at 4 ft). If the trench or excavation is less than 5 ft deep (4 ft if required), the competent person must evaluate the situation and determine if it is safe to enter without using a protective system. Note: so-called shallow trenches can and do injure and kill workers. If in doubt, play it safe and install a protective system.
  • Instruct all workers not to enter — not even for a minute or two — any unprotected trench or excavation that does not have a protective system or has not been designated safe to enter by the competent person.
  • Provide a ladder or other safe means for entering and exiting trenches 4 ft or more in depth, so workers have a safe way to get in or out of the trench or excavation. The ladder must be secured to ensure it will not kick out or fall over while a worker is climbing it. Ladders must also extend at least 3 ft above the point of access at the top. Ramps must have a protective system if they are 5 ft or more in depth. There must be a means of access within 25 ft of all workers.
  • Set spoil piles, materials, equipment, tools, etc. at least 2 ft back from the edge of the trench or excavation to prevent anything from falling into the trench or excavation and striking an employee working below.
  • Wear hard hats (head protection) when working in or around trenches and excavations to reduce the possibility of injury if something falls from above or from being struck in the head by a load or piece of equipment.
  • Keep all equipment and vehicles back from the edge of the trench or excavation to prevent them from creating a surcharge (load on trench wall) that could cause the trench or excavation to cave-in. The only exception is an excavator digging or backfilling.
  • Call the Dig Safe (one-call) center and wait for the mark out before digging. All workers should be reminded to be extra careful when excavating or trenching in the area of existing utilities. It is always a best practice to locate marked utilities. Any breaks or other damages to utilities, no matter how minor, must be reported to the supervisor, who must report the information to the appropriate utility company to determine what must be done. In the event of a gas leak, evacuate the area, contact the gas utility company, and call 911 or notify the fire department immediately.
  • Install a protective system and control water accumulation within a trench before employees are permitted to enter.
  • Direct employees to stay out from under raised loads including buckets of dirt moved by the excavator. Instruct workers to stay clear when loads are moved around by an excavator, crane, or other equipment so they are not stuck by the equipment or load. Test for low oxygen, flammable gases, hazardous fumes, and toxic gases before entering a trench or excavation if there is a reasonable possibility there could be a hazardous atmosphere in the trench and excavation.
  • Comply with Subpart P – OSHA Excavation Standards and all other applicable standards.

I realize you may have heard or read all this before, but I think it is time to remind every manager and worker about the importance of following the regulations and best practices. In fact, we recommend all persons who are assigned as a competent person to attend an excavation competent person training program or refresher course every 3 to 5 years to help ensure they don’t forget the requirements or get complacent about trench safety.

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Every trench fatality is preventable if employers follow the OSHA and state regulations and ensure every trench or excavation is equipped with a protective system. Failure to provide a protective system is the leading cause of trench-related fatalities. As responsible underground contractors, we need to continue to do our part to eliminate the needless deaths and serious injuries occurring in and around trenches and excavations. So, please help NUCA spread the word to other contractors and employers because there is no reason for any worker to die in a trench or excavation.

For more information about trench safety or competent person training, visit the NUCA website ( Information can also be obtained from the OSHA website at

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George Kennedy is Kennedy is the recently retired Vice President of Safety for the National Utility Contractors Association (NUCA) and is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP). [Editor’s note: Originally printed March 2017]

RELATED: 2020 Trench Safety Stand Down

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