Taking the proper precautions is the best thing for your employees and your company’s bottom line.


Every time you dig a trench, you are putting workers at risk. As the trench gets deeper, the risks get higher and the more management practices are needed to make sure the trenching is being done safely.

Two workers are killed every month, on average, in trench collapses in the U.S., according to OSHA. The agency cites “economic pressures, a belief that compliance is unnecessary or an expectation that these short-term operations will go undetected” as key reasons why regulations are not followed, even after years of emphasis.

Any trench 5 feet or deeper requires a protective system: benching, sloping, shoring or shielding. If the trench is less than 5 feet deep, a “competent person” could determine that a protective system is not needed. A competent person is one who has been trained in such things as soil classification, water content of the soil and other matters that could pose a risk to trench integrity. Protective systems in trenches 20 feet deep or greater must be designed by a registered professional engineer or be based on data prepared or approved by one. (A trench wider than 15 feet falls under excavation regulations.)

Related: Blog: Explosion Could Have Been Prevented

Workers must also be provided safe access methods. Such ladders, steps and ramps must be within 25 feet of all workers in any trench of 4 feet or deeper. The regulations include several other provisions, such as regular inspection (by a competent person), keeping heavy equipment away from trenches, storing spoils at least 2 feet from the edge, atmospheric testing and suspended/raised loads safety.

Beyond Safety

Beyond safety of workers, there are practical business reasons for proper trenching practices. A Philadelphia plumbing company was hit with more than $40,000 in fines last April for excavation violations while installing a residential sewer line. The OSHA violations included the lack of a protective system, no barrier for the spoil pile, inadequate training and failure to have a hazard communication program.

Making matters worse, three of the violations were repeat events, escalating the enforcement action and accounting for $36,960 in fines. Four were ranked as serious, which added another $3,520 for a total fine of $40,480. That’s an expensive bill for shaving a few minutes off a job.

Related: It’s National Protect Your Hearing Month

The violations could also have resulted in serious harm, or death, for the workers. Imagine having to deal with that: the fines, civil liability, bad publicity — having to notify the worker’s family that they will never see their loved one again.

Risky Business

Besides posing the greatest risk, cave-ins are the most common accident involving trenches. One cubic yard of soil weighs as much as a car (a full-sized one-axle dump truck carries roughly 5 cubic yards). Other risks include falls, falling loads, accidents with moving equipment, underground utilities and even hazardous atmospheres.

While the onus for safety falls on the employer, workers are their own best protection. As an OSHA trench safety poster states, “An unprotected trench is an early grave.”

Related: Trenches Don’t Have to be Deep to be Dangerous

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