There were 15 fatalities from trenching and excavation work in 2021, but in the first six months of 2022, we already saw 22 such fatalities.

Simply put, these are avoidable.  We know how to avoid them.  We can truly get to zero deaths from trench collapses.

Why don’t we, then?  There are a handful of reasons and not all of them have to do with greed and a zeal to save money.  As well-intended workers in and around trenches and excavations, it is far too easy to convince ourselves that we won’t be in there that long, it’s not that deep, and so on.  We must get rid of that notion.  Our lives depend upon it.  And supervisors must take an active role to ensure that no one takes these senseless chances.

If you are unconvinced, watch this brief OSHA video on trenches and protective systems (makes a great tailgate safety talk).  It comes down to this – know the soil types, assign a Competent Person, and if it’s five feet or greater in depth, slope it, bench it, shore it, or shield it.  In fact, if the Competent Person has reason to suspect cave in, you must also provide adequate protective systems, even if the depth is less than five feet.

What do we mean by a Competent Person?  In 29 CFR 1926.650, OSHA tells us that “’Competent person’ means one who is capable of identifying existing and predictable hazards in the surroundings, or working conditions which are unsanitary, hazardous, or dangerous to employees, and who has authorization to take prompt corrective measures to eliminate them.”

Let’s break this down a bit.  This is the person that says it’s okay to go in…or the person that says no, not until we take some safety precautions.  This is a person that takes responsibility for the lives of those who will enter, so it must always be based on a knowledgeable, conscious, thorough analysis of the soil and site conditions.  And this person must have authority to stop all work and remove personnel from the excavation or this person is not a Competent Person.  This is not a negotiation – the Competent Person makes this decision.

Let’s face it, OSHA Standards can be a circular minefield of confusing minutiae, but until you get in the weeds protective system designs, which quickly become the purview of a professional engineer’s design, OSHA is fairly direct here.  There are a few other basics for your Competent Person to think about before any excavation.

When a trench excavation is only four feet deep or greater, you must also have a means of egress (ladder, stairway, ramp, etc.) spaced so workers need not travel more than 25’ to reach them.  Watch the video above to see a little about why that is.

Next, “where oxygen deficiency (atmospheres containing less than 19.5 percent oxygen) or a hazardous atmosphere exists or could reasonably be expected to exist, such as in excavations in landfill areas or excavations in areas where hazardous substances are stored nearby, the atmospheres in the excavation shall be tested before employees enter excavations greater than 4 feet in depth.”  Think about things like using a cutting torch in the excavation or trenching around a sanitary sewer line, for example.

Inevitably, there is someone who wants to argue the nuances of what constitutes a trench, and saying that if it looks like a trench, it’s probably a trench won’t cut it. OSHA tells us that a “’trench (trench excavation)’ means a narrow excavation (in relation to its length) made below the surface of the ground. In general, the depth is greater than the width, but the width of a trench (measured at the bottom) is not greater than 15 feet (4.6 m). If forms or other structures are installed or constructed in an excavation so as to reduce the dimension measured from the forms or structure to the side of the excavation to 15 feet (4.6 m) or less (measured at the bottom of the excavation), the excavation is also considered to be a trench.”

That gets a bit wonky.  So, the best course of action is not to over-litigate it in the field.  If the bottom is not a good 15’ wide and you’re four feet deep or more, get the Competent Person over there and make an assessment.

It is too common that a three or four foot deep excavation to repair a water main break or sewer line leak is done without a Competent Person examining the conditions.  The thinking is that it is an emergency situation and has to be done now and you can’t wait for shoring or shielding.  You have to.  Think about it, you have previously disturbed, mixed soils that are probably wetted down.  The soils are unstable.  What are you doing?  Stop gambling with your life.

But, it’s only up to my chest, you think.  Let’s do some math.  Conservatively, that soil probably weighs about 110 pounds per cubic foot…perhaps more.  One cubic foot of that material that caves in against you and pins you to the other wall weighs about 3,000 pounds.  To be graphic, do you think you can breathe enough to explain to someone how safe it is with 3,000 pounds of soil pinned to your chest?  You have probably watched the sides of excavations collapse.  How fast do you think you can move – faster than that material can pin you to the wall?  Stop taking these chances – you are rolling the dice for far more than you are willing to lose.

And if you are a supervisor, do not be casual about this.  Don’t leave this up to the discretion of employees.  Take an active role to protect them.  Ensure that all excavations begin with an assessment by a Competent Person.  Develop a policy or standard operating procedure that requires these assessments and protective actions, without exception.  Aside from the liabilities associated with not following these simple OSHA standards, ask around and you may discover someone who has witnessed the aftermath of one of these disasters – they will tell you that what they saw they will never be able to completely forget.

This brief article is not sufficient to prepare a Competent Person to evaluate the site and soil conditions and there are many more, detailed design considerations when it comes to proper selection and setup of shielding and shoring systems.  But this article will hopefully convince any employers or supervisors that might doubt the serious risk of trench excavations to take a strongly proactive role to ensure worker safety, regardless of the emergency situations.  And it will hopefully encourage all workers to consider their own safety before entering any trench excavation.

Trench fatalities are avoidable.  We know how to avoid them.  We can truly get to zero deaths from trench collapses.  But, it takes all of us getting serious about our own safety.

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