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Excavation and Trench Safety

Excavation and Trench Safety

OSHA Enforces Trenching Safety Standards

Following a series of three failed site inspections by OSHA between 2019 and 2020, the Wagner Construction company has agreed to pay a $380,000 penalty and reevaluate its safety protocols. OSHA found that the Minnesota based company had been neglecting to train employees on trench safety. This exposed them to serious excavation and trenching hazards.

OSHA’s Standards

Any excavation job, including trenching, can be extremely dangerous without the right precautions. Hazards range from simple trips and falls to being buried alive during a cave-in.  They can even include electrocution by underground power lines. OSHA enforces a long list of standards to protect employees against accidents like these. 1926.651, for example, outlines specific requirements for employers and employees to follow before and during excavation projects. It provides for daily site inspections, designated safe routes of travel, and breathing protection in confined spaces. It also requires certain digging and shoring methods be used to protect employees against cave-ins and falling debris.

Course Correction

In addition to paying the requisite fine, Wagner Construction Inc. agreed to provide excavation and trenching safety training to all its employees before beginning any other projects this year. They also committed to hire a third-party safety consultant and create a corporate safety committee to evaluate their work practices at regular meetings.

Employers can avoid costly cases like this one by providing adequate safety training to their employees before sending them into the worksite. Safety Provisions aims to help fulfill this requirement by offering trainings on trenching safety and a growing number of other occupational practices.

To learn more about trenching safety, consider checking out OSHA’s Trench Safety Stand Down Week. The event begins on June 14 and runs through the 18th.  OSHA hopes it will raise awareness of the specific hazards associated with excavation and trenching. It also aims to highlight protective systems and digging techniques that help keep construction workers out of danger.

Trench Collapse Dangers

In the news, 2 men died when a 15-foot trench collapsed, trapping and suffocating them. When working in trenches there’s always a risk of collapse, but there are many tools and standards that will help. Knowledge will always protect those in trenches. OSHA’s standards on trench safety is a gold mine of knowledge and will keep everyone safe.

Excavating 2 Feet

Two feet is a magic number when it comes to trench safety: it’s the minimum safe distance to keep everything away from the trench. The two-foot distance relieves stress that’s on the excavation from equipment. The 2-foot distance also helps keep materials like rocks, pipes, and till piles from creating a hazard.

Excavating 4 Feet

Four feet is another magic number when it comes to trench safety: it’s the depth where a means of egress is needed. Excavations that are 4 feet deep require a means of egress every 25 feet.  A mean of egress is a ladder or a portion of the excavation that is benched.

Excavating 5 Feet

Five feet is another magic number for trench safety: it’s the minimum depth you can dig with shielding or shoring. When using a trench box, shielding or shoring workers must stay within the engineered safety area or the box. If you are using a sloped trench and then add in shielding or shoring at the bottom, the shoring must extend 18 inches above the vertical walls.

Excavating and Trenching Tools

When working with trenches, there are many tools that can help save lives. One of these is benching or sloping. The use of sloping or benching is making the walls of the excavation less than vertical or 90°.  The difference between sloping and benching is with benching the walls are dug to be like a set of stairs.

Another great tool to keep workers safe is the use of shielding or shoring: the use of metal or wood to secure the walls of the excavation from collapse. The difference between shielding and shoring is that shoring uses cross members that use hydraulic or pneumatic jacks to apply pressure to secure the excavation.

Make sure you are following all the OSHA Requirements and using the correct tools for the job. Training on trench safety is crucial to having a safe excavation site.

Excavation Hazards

Dangers of Trenching and Excavation

Cave-ins pose the greatest risk and are much more likely than other excavation-related accidents to result in worker fatalities. Other potential hazards include falls, falling loads, hazardous atmospheres, and incidents involving mobile equipment. Trench collapses cause dozens of fatalities and hundreds of injuries each year.

Protect Yourself

Do not enter an unprotected trench! Trenches 5 feet (1.5 meters) deep or greater require a protective system unless the excavation is made entirely in stable rock. Trenches 20 feet (6.1 meters) deep or greater require that the protective system be designed by a registered professional engineer or be based on tabulated data prepared and/ or approved by a registered professional engineer.

Protective Systems

There are different types of protective systems. Sloping involves cutting back the trench wall at an angle inclined away from the excavation. Shoring requires installing aluminum hydraulic shoring or other types of supports to prevent soil movement and cave-ins. Shielding protects workers by using trench boxes or other types of supports to prevent soil cave-ins. Designing a protective system can be complex because you must consider many factors: soil classification, depth of cut, water content of soil, changes due to weather or climate, surcharge loads (eg., spoil, other materials to be used in the trench) and other operations in the vicinity.

Excavation Competent Person

To eliminate excavation hazards, OSHA Requirements require a competent person to inspect trenches daily and as conditions at the worksite change prior to worker entry. The inspector must be capable of identifying existing or potential hazards and work conditions that are hazardous, unsanitary, or dangerous to employees. The inspector must also be authorized to take prompt, corrective measures to eliminate or control these hazards and conditions.

Access and Egress

OSHA requires safe access and egress to all excavations, including ladders, steps, ramps, or other safe means of exit for employees working in trench excavations 4 feet (1.22 meters) or deeper. These devices must be located within 25 feet (7.6 meters) of all workers.

General Trenching and Excavation Rules

  • Keep heavy equipment away from trench edges.
  • Keep surcharge loads at least 2 feet (0.6 meters) from trench edges.
  • Know where underground utilities are located.
  • Test for low oxygen, hazardous fumes and toxic gases.
  • Inspect trenches at the start of each shift.
  • Inspect trenches following a rainstorm
  • Do not work under raised loads.

Trench Cave-In

When we were young, and maybe even still, entering caves and small spaces was exciting. It gave you that rush of adrenaline, and that satisfaction of being in a place where maybe you shouldn’t be, or was maybe even dangerous. However, what we didn’t take into account was the high risk of a cave-in. Now that we have more knowledge of the risks of a cave-in, it is important to understand the safety procedures behind entering any confined space, in order to prevent or prolong such events.

Several cave-in accidents have recently occurred. These events give us an inside look at how important it is to be wary in events and situations where a cave-in might be a risk. In Statesville, 6 men were buried alive. These workers were digging a trench for a sewer line for the city. Unfortunately, the trench collapsed, killing all 6 men. Apparently, two of the workers stood on platforms which were embraced by the trench, probably 10 feet apart. The other four workers were in the trench when the collapse occurred. The city is held a dedication ceremony for these men, honoring their sacrifice.

Unfortunately this is not the only cave-in incident. Several companies lately have been fined for putting their workers at risk. In Parsippany, a local county-based contractor was fined $52,000 for knowingly and willfully putting employees at risk of a potential trench cave in. The company has been investigated multiple times for unsafe and unprotected trench hazards, putting workers at risk many times. Citations were given for things such as exposing workers to a spoil pile containing rocks and asphalt just inches from the open trench, and use of an improper ladder for accessing the trench. Additionally, they were cited for failing to ensure that workers wore proper protection. The company knew that cave in protection was required, yet allowed workers to work without the proper protection.

Trench Cave-in Leads to Fines and Criminal Indictment

A trench cave in that occurred on October 21, 2016 took the lives of 2 workers, as well as the reputation of a company and likely the freedom of the company’s owner. Atlantic Drain Service Company, inc found itself at the stern of a tragic and very avoidable accident after a 12-foot-deep trench collapsed and then filled with water wile 2 workers were caught in the chaos. OSHA had cited the company twice before in 2007 and in 2012 for the same violations that ultimately lead to the tragic accident on October 21. No trench box or safe guarding of any kind were being used on various work sites and none of the workers were trained properly. Sadly though, even after repeated warnings, the company continued to send workers into unprotected trenches without any safe guarding.

Due to the fact that multiple warnings and citations had already been given and nothing had been fixed $1,475,813 in proposed penalties were issued to the company for various violations. Violations included 18 willful, repeat, serious and other violations, OSHA determined that both Atlantic Drain and its owner, who oversaw the work the day of the fatalities, were to be held responsible for:

  • Failing to install a support system to fully protect employees in the 12’ deep trench from cave-in and an adjacent fire hydrant supply line from collapsing;
  • Failing to remove employees from the hazardous conditions in the trench;
  • Failing to train the workers on how to identify and address hazards associated with trenching and excavation;
  • Failing to provide an escape ladder at all times; and
  • Failing to provide support structures in and next to the trench for overhead hazards.

Just to name a few.

On top of the very large fines, the company and its owner also faces criminal charges. According to “OSHA, the US Solicitor, the Inspector General, Boston Police Department Homicide Unit and Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office all coordinated to investigate and obtain indictments of both Atlantic Drain and its owner on two counts each of manslaughter.”

It is Hard to believe that this situation had to come to this dramatic ending. Safety training and procedures are there for the safety and benefit of not only workers but company’s and employers as well. This owner, this company, and these 2 men could have all been happily working today if it weren’t for the blatant disregard of simple safety standards. If these men had been properly trained they would likely have refused to go into the trench without the proper safety guards in place. It is hard to say what could have happened if all the standards and warnings had been headed. But when all is said and done we are lift with a tragic example for the reason all others should keep themselves up to par with the safety training and equipment available to them so that they can comply with the standards that are in place to save live, companies, and reputations.

As the weather warms and building season comes into full force now is the time to get your hands on the comprehensive safety training that could save the lives of your workers. Visit us at  to find a full list of training  options that works best for you.

Tips for Trenches

It may seem like trenches don’t provide any safety hazards, because they are not machines, they are not high in the air, and they can’t really harm you. However, this is so far from the truth. There are at least two workers killed every month in trenches, and because of trench collapses. Trenches can pose a threat to any worker who is not aware of the hazards. Similarly, employers are at risk of being responsible for injury or death if they do not provide the necessary safety equipment or do not follow the proper safety requirements. For example, two excavation companies have recently been hit with fines for putting their workers at risk of trench cave-ins. In Tallahassee, Allen’s Excavation Inc. and Capital City Contracting LLC were hit with a combined fine of $108,500 for not providing the proper safety equipment. They failed to provide protection when employees were working in trenches deeper than 5 feet. Additionally, they failed to ensure that the shoring of trench walls, sloping, or benching of the soil was at an acceptable angle, and failed to require the use of a protective trench box. In order to avoid injury and death, OSHA has provided some tips for working safely in trenches. Some of these protective systems for trenches are:

  • Sloped for stability; or
  • Cut to create stepped benched grades; or
  • Supported by a system made with materials such as posts, beams, shores or planking and hydraulic jacks; or
  • Shielded by a trench box to protect workers in a trench.


  • Excavated or other materials must be at least 2 feet back from the edge of a trench
  • A safe way to exit must be provided within 25 feet of the workers in a trench
  • A competent person must inspect trenches daily and when conditions change

Fatalities from trench collapses can be prevented

Tell your employees about this preventable fatality and remind them of OSHA’s trench safety basics:

  • Keep heavy equipment away from trench edges.
  • Keep surcharge loads at least 2 feet (0.6 meters) from trench edges.
  • Know where underground utilities are located.
  • Test for low oxygen, hazardous fumes, and toxic gases.
  • Inspect trenches at the start of each shift.
  • Inspect trenches following a rainstorm.
  • Do not work under raised loads.

An unprotected trench is an early grave. When you disregard the hazards that they pose, you put yourself and others in danger. Make sure that you are well trained in every aspect of trenches, as well as any other area in which you may be working.

Trench Dangers and OSHA Violations

At the bottom of a fifteen foot trench, a worker asked for permission to walk away from the “trench box”- protective steel barriers that hold up the trench’s walls- to check the stormwater pipe. Although the trench box would have helped to protect the worker while in the trench, his supervisor told him yes, but to “hurry.” Unfortunately, the worker didn’t hurry fast enough. He was placed in the way of trench dangers, exposing himself to many hazards associated with trenches. The unprotected walls of the trench ended up burying the man, shattering two ribs, breaking his pelvis, and dislocating his right hip and left shoulder.

Although this man was still alive, many workers do not survive when placed in the way of trench dangers. This situation is one that is very familiar to OSHA officials, as companies seem to routinely neglect trench dangers, and in many instances fail to correct these problems. Over the past eight years, about 70% of workplace inspections in Pittsburgh have included at least one trench-related violation issued to all water and sewer line construction sites. In total, those companies paid at least $706,000 in penalties for 311 violations issued from January 2008 to April 2016, according to OSHA.

Unfortunately, trench dangers remain a large problem. Three trench collapses occurred in the Pittsburgh area alone in 2015, including one that killed a 21-year old worker. Trenches are a key danger in many construction sites, as one cubic yard of soil can weigh as much as 3,000 pounds. Unless dug in stable rock, excavations more than five feet deep are required to have a system in place to brace the walls. This is just one requirement that would prevent or lessen trench dangers. It is so important to be trained in trench safety, as well as any other area of work that you may be required to perform. Being well trained can prevent death and injury. Safety should be your number one priority.

Trench Safety: 5 Common Hazards

1. Trench Cave-ins

On average, trench collapses claim the lives of two workers every month. To prevent this, OSHA has required that professional engineers or a qualified professional analyze soil composition. Their scope of responsibility includes implementing a system which incorporates slopes, shields, and supports into the work site. Additionally, since moisture and other weather conditions can affect soil stability, OSHA recommends that excavations be inspected at the beginning of each shift, after it rains, or after other extreme weather events.

2. Hazardous Atmospheres

Consider safety hazards on excavation sites such as exposure to depleted oxygen levels in trenched areas. Toxic gases and chemicals contaminate the atmosphere of trenched areas. Therefore, qualified professionals should test the atmosphere in excavations that exceed four feet. If atmospheric hazards are present, personnel should wear respiratory protection equipment in the work site.

3. Mobile Equipment

It is common to have accidents that involve construction vehicles that fall into trenches. Equipment operators are not able to see properly due to the mobile equipment obstructing the view, causing distorted periphery to the perimeter of the trench. OSHA suggests that a spotter or a designated flagger direct the mobile equipment operator. This will prevent the vehicle from falling in the trench. When loading or unloading from the construction vehicle, workers should stand back in order to prevent injury from flying debris.

4. Electrocution from Utility Lines

As we have witnessed from the news story above, hitting utility lines when digging can cause electrocution and natural gas leaks, which can lead to worker fatalities. Fortunately, you can easily avoid hitting utility lines by simply contacting your local utility companies before you dig. Simply call your local 811 agency and allow the required time for the utility companies to mark their lines. This will keep your crew safe and avoid citation fines.

5. Falling

Personnel and work equipment can fall into an excavated area, thereby causing more injury. To prevent this, install a barrier and post safety signs around the perimeter of the excavation to clearly mark the fall hazard. Falling loads, such as mobile equipment or excavated dirt, can also fall into a trenched area and crush anybody who is working below. Store materials at least two feet away from the edge of an excavation.

Trench Accident: Collapse and Burial

When it comes to training, sometimes we forget that we need it for everything. It’s started from the time we were kids. We were trained in how to walk, how to eat our food and brush our teeth, and how to dress ourselves. There are very few things in life that come so naturally to us that we don’t need some kind of training. Sleeping and breathing, for instance. So if we have needed training for almost every little thing in our lives, why would we even begin to think that we could operate heavy machinery, or be involved in construction of some kind without any training? Lack of training can prove to be fatal. Recently, a young man was killed in Utah after a trench collapsed as he was working in it. This accident is absolutely tragic, but with proper training, even working in a trench can become safer.

This man that was killed, 20 year old Yongwhan Kim, was one of the two people in their two-man construction crew. The other worker was operating a backhoe, while Kim was assisting on the ground around the trench. The operator of the backhoe lost track of Kim, and when he found him again he was buried under dirt after the trench collapsed. Unfortunately, even after digging the man out and performing CPR, Kim was dead at the scene.

So how could this have been prevented? Maybe it was a neglect of procedure, or the wave of the hand at some simple precautionary standard that contributed to this accident. Then again, maybe it was just a fluke accident. But either way, if the men had been more fully prepared to operate in the trench, or even been more fully trained in the operation of the backhoe, maybe that could have saved a life.

You should always be prepared to operate in whatever area you are working. Whether its a trench, or some large equipment, always be prepared and know how to handle your situation, especially in the case of an emergency.

Accidents in the News: Trench Collapsed, Trapping a Man for 6 1/2 Hours

Recently, a man was working in a sewer trench when it collapsed. He became trapped in the trench, unable to move for hours. Reporters from Omaha World-Herald got the full story, which you can read below:

“For nearly seven hours, firefighters struggled to free the man who had been trapped up to his waist, according to emergency dispatchers, in front of 13019 Hawthorne Court. Identified by KMTV as 23-year-old Drew Johnson, he was taken to Nebraska Medical Center, alert but with pain in one of his legs.

Johnson was listed in good condition Wednesday morning.

While rescuers worked, neighbors did what they could, with some intent on fueling up emergency workers, news reporters and others with coffee, cookies and snacks.

“Everybody is working so hard,” Martzie Lynch said.

About 30 firefighters were at the scene, Thornburg said.

Omaha Fire Battalion Chief Kathy Bossman said Johnson, who works for Utility Trenching, was the only person in the hole when one side collapsed about 9:45 a.m.

Crews first set up a tripod pulley system with a rope to hoist Johnson out of the hole.

“The biggest challenge is the safety of the patient,” Bossman said about two hours in. “It’s a slow process.”

Despite being trapped, Johnson was in good spirits, Bossman said.

“He’s tired, and he’s working hard. He is able to help us with his rescue,” Bossman said. “He is able to tell us when it’s OK to pull and when to stop … We have given him warm IV fluids and oxygen to help keep him medically stable.”

Wooden planks were brought in to stabilize the walls of the hole, which limited the space rescuers could work in.

Once the trench was somewhat stabilized, crews were able to use equipment provided by Metropolitan Utilities District to loosen and suck dirt from the hole, Thornburg said.

By mid-afternoon, Bossman could declare this progress: “We finally see his boots.”

Even then, the work was laborious.

“The trench was fairly unstable,” Thornburg said. “They would free one foot, dirt would slough off, and it would trap him again.”

At least two buried shovels from the sewer work laid across Johnson’s feet, hindering rescue.

Cave-ins are extremely dangerous. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration notes that a cubic foot of soil can weigh more than 100 pounds, and a cubic yard can weigh more than 3,000 pounds. A person buried under only a few feet of soil can experience enough pressure in the chest to prevent the lungs from expanding, OSHA said. In this case, Johnson’s chest wasn’t compressed by the dirt.”

Trench collapses can be extremely dangerous. While this man was alive, he was put in the ICU after the accident. If you are working in or near trenches, be sure to be well trained.

Accidents in the News:Trench Collapses and Cave-Ins

“Skokut died when the walls of a 10-foot-deep trench collapsed on him as he and his father worked to install a septic system at a property outside Smithton owned by Adam Skokut Sr.

Local firefighters said Skokut Jr. was in the 30-inch-wide trench at 9:30 a.m. when it began to fill with water and a wall of wet, clay-based soil trapped him inside. It took rescuers about three hours to shore up the trench walls and remove the teen’s body.

Civil engineering expert J. David Gardner said that type of soil is typical to Western Pennsylvania, which can make trenches more prone to collapsing. Gardner works for Robson Forensic, a forensic engineering firm with offices in Pittsburgh as well as across Pennsylvania and the country.

“When you are digging for a trench to install a utility pipe, for a deck, whatever it is, the overall stability of the trench depends upon the soil you’re digging in,” Gardner said.

OSHA requires trenches deeper than 5 feet to use a protective system unless the excavation site is entirely in stable rock. Shields provide stability to vertical walls and are designed differently based on the type of soil and depth, Gardner said. Fire officials indicated that a protective system was not used at the South Huntingdon trench.

Another option is to create sloped sides for a trench deeper than 5 feet.

“When you dig the earth, that earth has been together for millions of years,” Gardner said. “Its support has been removed.”

Trench collapses can happen quickly and have deadly consequences, Gardner said.

“When a trench collapses, it collapses without warning,” he said.”

Several things happened that could have been prevented in this accident. Protective systems, sloped sides, or other barriers should have been in place to protect these workers from a cave-in. Soil is one of the most unpredictable hazards in any accident, so many protective measures should always be in place.

Excavation and Trench Safety

When it comes to excavation, safety is of the utmost importance. When you think about how easy it could be to become trapped under ground material, you might consider safety training more seriously. Take a look at the following article, that explains the deaths of workers in excavation and trenches:

“Fifty-four workers were killed in excavation accidents last year, according to OSHA.

As part of the agency’s aggressive emphasis on trench and excavation safety, two contractors working on a utility project on Colorado Street in Austin, Texas have been fined for willful and serious violations of OSHA’s trench safety regulations.

Muniz Concrete and Contracting, Inc., and Austin Constructors LLC were cited last April for exposing their workers to hazards on a project where trenches were being dug under and near unsupported utility line encasements. While the excavation was open, underground installations were not protected, supported or removed as necessary  to safeguard workers.

Employees of Austin Constructors were required to work near an unprotected trench with a face wall of loose rock and soil, exposing them to falling material. Austin Constructors was cited for one willful and three serious violations for failing to secure powerlines, failing to use trench protection, and failing to provide guardrails or walkways over the trench. Total fine: $113,486.

Workers employed by Muniz Concrete and Contracting were exposed to cave-in danger when four employees were jackhammering and shoveling while unprotected in two trench locations. Muniz Concrete and Contracting was cited for one serious violation for exposing workers to cave-in danger. Total fine: $7,857.”

While sometimes you may not think about trench safety, it is incredibly important. It’s those jobs in which safety training is overlooked that are often the most important to be trained in. Any little thing can cause an accident, and it’s important to know the hazards and safety procedures for each job.

To look into training further, whether for trench and excavation, or for any other job, click on the links below:

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