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Mitigate Excavation and Trenching Hazards through Proper Training

By Jim Goss, Contributor

Trenching and excavation fatalities have been on the rise in the construction industry. According to OSHA, 39 people died while working in trenches or excavations in 2022. Because of so many incidents, OSHA has launched a National Emphasis Program for Excavations in which the association will inspect more than 1,000 trenches nationwide for safety and health hazards.

OSHA imposes penalties for violations related to excavation and trenching incidents. The penalties are designed to encourage compliance with safety regulations and to deter employers from neglecting the safety of their workers.

In January 2023, OSHA increased the maximum penalties for serious violations to $15,625 per violation. The maximum penalty for willful or repeated violations increased from $145,027 to $156,259 per violation. State governments have increased penalties as well.

• Insufficient training and supervision often contribute to accidents in trenching and excavation.

How Do Trenching and Excavation Accidents Occur?

Cave-ins are one of the most significant hazards in trenching and excavation. They occur when the walls of a trench or excavation collapse, burying workers under soil, rock, or other materials. Cave-ins can happen due to inadequate protective systems, unstable soil conditions, vibrations from nearby machinery, or excessive water accumulation.

Trenches and excavations must have proper shoring, sloping, or shielding systems to prevent the collapse of the walls. If the walls are left unsupported or inadequately supported, they can cave in, leading to accidents.

Additional risks include workers falling into the trench due to insufficient barriers around the edge, as well as workers being exposed to toxic substances around the trench, such as hazardous gas or fumes.

Awareness Training

Insufficient training and supervision often contribute to accidents in trenching and excavation.

To prevent accidents in trenches, workers must undergo specific training to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to work safely.

OSHA requires that a “Competent Person” be present on-site to identify and address trenching and excavation hazards.

Who Qualifies as a Competent Person?

A Competent Person is defined as someone who can identify existing and predictable hazards in the surroundings or is authorized to take prompt corrective measures to eliminate them. Trenching and excavation work depends on these specialized employees because of its highly technical nature and inherent hazards, which require a greater level of training and experience than an average worker would possess.

What Training is Required?

Competent Person training provides individuals with the knowledge and skills to recognize hazards, assess soil conditions, determine appropriate protective systems, and ensure compliance with safety regulations.

Participants learn how to identify potential hazards in excavation and trenching operations, which includes understanding the various soil types and their stability, recognizing signs of hazardous atmospheres, identifying potential falling object hazards, and assessing other risks associated with the work environment. Competent Person training teaches participants about soil classification methods, including visual inspection and manual testing techniques, to determine soil stability and appropriate protective measures.

Competent Person training covers selecting, installing, and using protective systems for trenches and excavations. Participants learn about sloping, benching, shoring, and shielding and understand the factors influencing the selection of the most suitable protective system for a specific excavation project.

Instructions on safe entry and exit procedures are also included in the training, as students learn about establishing secure access points, providing ladders or other means of egress, and implementing procedures for workers to enter and exit safely. Additionally, the training covers emergency response protocols and how to assess emergencies, coordinate rescue efforts, and provide aid to injured workers.

Another key point of the training includes ensuring the Competent Person understands the importance of maintaining accurate documentation and records.

Note that the specific content and duration of Competent Person training can vary depending on the training provider and the region’s regulatory requirements.

Trenching and Excavation Safety Training

Along with Competent Person training, job site workers involved in trenching and excavation need comprehensive safety training to help them understand the hazards associated with trenching, recognize unsafe conditions, use protective systems correctly, and follow safe work practices.

Trenching and excavation safety training should cover many of the same topics as Competent Person training, including soil classification, shoring, and shielding techniques, safe entry and exit procedures, and emergency response protocols.

Workers who operate machinery and equipment in and around trenches should receive specialized training, which includes the safe operation of equipment, including excavators, backhoes, and compactors. Operators need to understand the limitations of the equipment, maintain safe distances from trench edges, and avoid potential hazards such as overhead power lines or underground utilities.

Construction workers working around trench or excavation jobsites need the training to identify and understand the potential risks associated with hazardous materials and substances they may encounter in trenches. Additionally, workers must receive training on confined space entry procedures, atmospheric testing, ventilation, and rescue protocols if a trench is considered a confined space.

Workers must be trained in emergency response and rescue procedures for trenching accidents. This training should cover topics such as responding to a cave-in, performing a rescue operation safely, and administering first aid to injured workers. Ongoing training and refresher courses can reinforce knowledge.

Training needs to be provided by qualified instructors or organizations with expertise in trenching and excavation safety. Employers should also establish a safety culture, encourage open communication, and provide regular supervision to ensure workers apply the knowledge and skills acquired through training in their daily activities.

Safety management software programs that include skills management can track workers who have undergone training to work around trenches and excavations. With these tools in place, foremen in the field can scan a Skills QR code on crew members’ badges or helmets to ensure they have the required knowledge before stepping into a trench.

Jim Goss is Senior Safety Consultant, HCSS (hcss.com).

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