Trench Safety Is NUCA’s Forte

trench safety

I can’t say enough about how important it is to work safely when working in and around trenches, which is why NUCA organized and promoted the national Trench Safety Stand Down in June. With the help of all the contractors that participated, we reached out to more than 11,500 workers at more than 1,000 jobsites. That’s almost five times as many workers as last year, and all I can say is that’s fantastic. To all the companies, organizations and workers that participated, members and non-members alike, we say thank you for taking an interest in this vitally important project. We also want to thank OSHA for its help and assistance with reaching out to companies and organizations to promote the stand down. We hope that every employee that participated will share the information with their coworkers and that each and every one of you will benefit from this stand down. For more information on this year’s event, check out our recap here.

Last year the number of trench cave-in fatalities doubled the number of fatalities that had occurred in 2014 and 2015 and was the highest number of fatalities since 2007. This is unacceptable, and this year the numbers could be even higher based on indications thus far. If contractors don’t take action immediately to ensure safe trenching jobsites, the number of fatalities for 2017 will be even higher than last year. There is still hope to lower this year’s number but every contractor who performs work involving excavations must ensure that no worker enters into a trench or excavation that is not protected by a trench protective system — trench shield, shoring or proper sloping — the Three S’s of Trench Safety.

OSHA has recently informed me that the worst months of the year for trench fatalities are October and November. This period will begin about the time this article hits the streets, so take heed ditch diggers and pay extra attention to trench safety during these months. And don’t be afraid to reach out and approach other contractors and municipalities that you observe putting their workers at risk. Take a few minutes out of your busy schedule to stop and talk to them about how important it is to protect their workers in the trench. If nothing else, call the company or municipality and tell them about their dangerous and potentially deadly jobsite — the boss may not even know about it. I’m not going to tell you to call OSHA, but that is an option too. You could save a life. Remember that poem we published a few years ago that started with “I could have saved a life that day, but I choose to look the other way.” Don’t look the other way!

There are four types of hazards that cause most of the construction-related fatalities and two of them definitely apply to excavation work. The first is caught-in or between, which applies to cave-ins, getting caught between equipment and a stationary object or being crushed under equipment or materials. The second is incidents where a worker is struck by equipment or materials such as a rotating excavator or crane, a pipe that is being moved into place or by a rock falling out of a bucket. The third and fourth are not as common around excavations: Electrocution, such as when working near overhead or underground power lines or using electric tools or equipment not protected by a ground-fault circuit breaker, and falls.

Become Proactive

NUCA is asking members and other contractors to become equally proactive in preventing trench-related fatalities and injuries. In addition to following the checklist of best practices regarding trench safety on this page, start reaching out to other companies, municipalities and even workers who are involved in trenching and excavation work. Tell them what the requirements are and where they can learn more about the availability of protective systems. Require all of your foremen and those of your subcontractors to attend trench safety training programs, such as NUCA’s Excavation Safety and Competent Person Program.

Every trench fatality is preventable if excavators follow the OSHA and state regulations and ensure that every trench or excavation is equipped with a protective system and that other hazards are eliminated. As responsible underground contractors, you owe it to your employees. We need to do our part to eliminate the needless deaths and serious injuries that are currently plaguing our industry again. So please help NUCA and OSHA spread the word as widely as possible that We Dig America Safely and they should too!


Best Practices for Excavators

  • Assign a Competent Person (CP) to every excavation job (no matter how deep) to oversee the safety of the job. Trench and excavation jobs must be inspected daily by a CP and as often as necessary to ensure that they remain safe throughout the day.
  • Install a protective system — sloping, shoring or shield. OSHA regulations state that trenches 5-ft deep or greater require a protective system (Note: some states require a protective system at 4 ft).
  • Instruct all workers not to enter the trench or excavation, even for a moment, until the competent person says it is safe.
  • Provide a ladder, ramp or stairs for all trenches or excavations 4 ft or more in depth, so workers have a safe way to get in or out of the trench or excavation. Ladders must be secured to ensure they don’t kick out or fall over while the worker is climbing on the ladder. Ladders must be set up inside the protective system and also extend 3 ft above the point of access at the top. Ramps must be equipped with a protective system if they 5 ft or more in depth. A means of access and egress must be within 25 ft of all workers.
  • Spoil piles, materials, equipment, tools, etc. must be set back at least 2 ft from the edge of the trench or excavation. The farther back the better.
  • Workers must wear hard hats and safety glasses when working in or around trenches and excavations.
  • Keep all equipment and vehicles away from the edge of the trench or excavation to prevent them from surcharging the trench or excavation wall.
  • Control water accumulation within the trench or excavation before workers are permitted to enter.
  • Direct workers to stay out from under raised loads, including suspended pipe and buckets of dirt moved by the excavator.
  • Test for low oxygen, flammable gases, carbon monoxide and hydrogen sulfide before permitting workers to enter the trench or excavation if there is a reasonable possibility the atmosphere may be hazardous.
  • Comply with Subpart P – OSHA Excavation standards and other applicable standards.
  • Last, but also very important, always call the one-call center (Dig Safe 811) before digging.

George Kennedy is NUCA’s vice president of safety.