Employee Safety Training and Orientation

construction worker

Excavation work is inherently dangerous. Prior to starting work at a jobsite, workers should be informed of the potential hazards that may exist in their work environment. In addition to knowing how to recognize hazards, workers need to know how to avoid unsafe conditions. OSHA and state safety regulations require employers to train and educate workers to recognize and protect themselves from hazardous conditions. After all, how can an employer expect employees to work safely if the worker is not aware of what constitutes an unsafe condition and/or what conditions exist?

Even though one job may be similar to the next, conditions often change and workers need to be aware of those changes. For example, the last job may have been located on a back street where there was little traffic and the job starting tomorrow will be on a very busy street. Conditions will be different and the crew needs to be reminded about working safety around traffic.

As a safety professional, I cannot begin to tell you how many times I have heard employers, managers, foremen and crew leaders say that safety is just a matter of common sense. I agree to some extent, but when it comes to the unique hazards found around underground construction jobsites, I have to draw a line. Every worker in the industry should at minimum be provided with a safety orientation so they are aware of the hazards commonly found at jobsites involving excavations.

With unemployment rates hovering at all-time lows, utility construction contractors are struggling to find and retain skilled workers to man pipe laying and cable crews. This has created a need to hire workers who do not have all the skills and safety training necessary for the underground construction industry. In addition, the underground construction industry is experiencing a growing influx of Spanish-speaking workers, which can present training challenges for employers.

The concentration of Spanish-speaking workers who perform excavation and trenching activities are not limited to the South and U.S – Mexico border states. Today we are seeing a significant number of Spanish-speaking crews in the Mid-Atlantic, Midwestern, and Western states, and the trend northward is expected to continue. It is clear that there is an increased need for safety training in both English and Spanish.

Statistics show that most accidents occur within the first six months of employment. Safety professionals believe that orientations are necessary to help ensure the safety of a new employee, especially workers who are new to the industry. However, new yet experienced employees should not be excluded from training. Companies should design orientations around the assumption that new hires have no safety training.

Years ago, the NUCA Foundation applied for and received a Susan Harwood Grant from OSHA to develop an Excavation Safety Orientation Program, which is still available from NUCA. The simple program is provided in both English and Spanish, flexible, and easy to use. The entire orientation takes approximately 1½ hours to complete. Although the program was designed as a self-study, interactive, computer-based program, it can easily be used by an instructor in a classroom environment.

Overcoming the language barrier is not enough. The literacy level of workers entering the utility construction market has created a growing training challenge. The orientation program has been designed so that any worker at all levels can understand the message, even if they cannot read. The program has addressed this problem by using pictures and video clips accompanied by audio in English or Spanish to convey the necessary information.

In the utility construction industry, the goal of a safety orientation is to reduce the number of injuries and fatalities resulting from cave-ins, falling materials, being struck by materials and equipment, confined space entry, and other common hazards found around the average trench site. This program is a valuable orientation tool and a good way to ensure that all workers are educated about possible hazards and how to avoid or prevent them.

Program Content

The Excavation Safety Orientation Program contains information about the following:

  • Employer and employee rights and responsibilities
  • Personal protective equipment
  • Entering and exiting the excavation safely
  • Slips, trips, and falls
  • Working near the edge of a trench
  • Cave-ins and protective systems
  • Rigging, lifting and material handling
  • Working near traffic
  • Existing utilities
  • Jobsite drainage
  • Confined-space entry, and
  • Personal safety.

Even though we have just completed the third annual NUCA Trench Safety Stand Down, there is still a lot to be done to prevent workers from placing their lives on the line. Employers need to provide the equipment to ensure that workers are protected from cave-ins and workers need to understand that they are not expected to enter into any unprotected trench – no sloping, no shoring, no shield – for any reason. Even short-term entry for a minute or two can result in a worker being trapped or killed.

By focusing on all workers engaged in excavation activity – not just the foreman or competent person – the orientation program is designed to help contractors reach all workers. A copy of the program can be ordered from NUCA’s website. The disk includes the programs in both English and Spanish. The price is $99.00.

NUCA members have always had the attitude that “We Dig Safely” and expect our workers to go home to their families at the end of every workday. Let’s continue to ensure that workers are our most important asset by educating them to work safely.

George Kennedy is is vice president of safety for the National Utility Contractors Association (NUCA) and is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP).

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