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Digging Deep into Trench Safety

By Robert Lahey, Contributor

The data is staggering – and tragic. The most recent report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed a 5.7% increase in fatal workplace injuries, with 5,486 lives lost in 2022. Almost half of these incidents involved construction workers, who operate in many different dangerous environments, especially high-risk excavation sites.

The most common dangers of trenching operations include:

  • Cave-Ins – Soil collapses can trap or crush workers inside.
  • Falls – Co-workers and equipment are at risk due to uneven surfaces or lack of proper barriers around the perimeter.
  • Hazardous Atmospheres – These are unseen risks from hazardous gases, lack of oxygen, and toxic fumes.
  • Mobile Equipment – Beware of caught-between or struck-by incidents with on-site machinery and vehicles.
  • Utilities – Avoid damage to underground gas, water, and electrical distribution lines.

These risks are not new, nor are they a recent phenomenon. In fact, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has carried out a National Emphasis Program on Trenching and Excavation since 2018. It remains in effect today and authorizes OSHA field personnel to initiate an inspection, without advance notice, whenever they observe an open trench, regardless of whether or not a violation is readily observed.

Employers and employees can use these strategies to minimize the abundance of hazards that are inherent in underground construction:

  • Ensure a safe means of entry and exit
  • Keep persons and materials away from edges
  • Inspect the trench before entering
  • Install cave-in protection
  • Look for standing water within the trench

Equally important to preserving a safe and healthful work environment is establishing a comprehensive training program. With sufficient advance preparation, an educated workforce serves a two-fold purpose:

  1. Compliance with OSHA regulations and standards for trenching, excavation, and protective systems
  2. Reduction of accidents and injuries on jobsites

Thus, excavation safety training is not just a legal requirement. It is a lifesaving practice that protects workers and promotes a safer construction industry.

Robert Lahey is the President and CEO, Chicagoland Construction Safety Council (buildsafe.org).

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