Trenching and excavation safety is a year-round responsibility

By Josh Krey, Staab Construction Corporation

As we dive into another month of operations and into the construction season, it is crucial to maintain our focus on safety, especially when it comes to trenching and excavation work. These tasks are integral to our projects but also carry significant risks if not managed with utmost care. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has maintained an active National Emphasis Program (NEP) to focus on trenching and excavation operations that are unsafe. The current NEP, active since 2018, provides OSHA with the ability to respond to complaints or reports of potentially dangerous open trenches and excavations and make corrections. With this active NEP, OSHA has the ability to enter any site with active open excavations or trenches to inspect for the safety and compliance of that task. Although June is Trench/Excavation Safety month we want to make sure that we focus on the critical role that excavation plays on our jobsites.

As contractors we can reinforce our company’s commitment to safety by adhering to the following guidelines and best practices:

  1. Training and Awareness
    • Ensure all personnel involved in trenching and excavation are adequately trained in safety protocols, including competent person training.
    • Regularly conduct toolbox talks and training sessions to reinforce safety procedures and raise awareness about potential hazards.
    • Ensure that all contractors not involved in the trenching excavation are aware of the open trenching operation.
  2. Conduct jobsite Assessments:
    • Before commencing any excavation work, conduct a comprehensive assessment of the site to identify potential hazards such as underground utilities, unstable soil, and nearby structures.
    • Develop and implement a site-specific safety plan that addresses these hazards and outlines appropriate control measures.
    • Utilize diggers hotline and maintain active ticket during operations.
  3. Using Protective Measures:
    • Use protective systems such as sloping, shoring, or trench boxes to prevent cave-ins and protect workers from being engulfed by collapsing soil.
    • Install barricades and warning signs around excavation sites to prevent unauthorized access and minimize the risk of accidents.
  4. Atmospheric Conditions:
    • Regularly test the atmosphere within trenches for hazardous gases such as methane, carbon monoxide, and hydrogen sulfide, any other potential hazards
    • Ensure adequate ventilation is provided to maintain safe air quality within the excavation area.
    • Keep CO-producing equipment away from the edges of openings when possible.
  5. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE):
    •  Require all workers to wear appropriate PPE, including hard hats, high-visibility clothing, and protective gloves.
    • Provide respiratory protection as needed, especially in confined spaces or when working with hazardous materials.
  6. Emergency Procedures:
    • Develop and communicate clear emergency procedures outlining steps to be taken in the event of an accident, injury, or hazardous situation.
    • Ensure all workers are familiar with evacuation routes, emergency contact information, and procedures for reporting incidents.
    •  Set up rally points for the job to assist with jobsite control.
  7. Inspections and Maintenance:
    •   Conduct regular inspections of excavation equipment, including trench boxes, shoring materials, and safety harnesses, to ensure they are in good working condition.
    •   Promptly address any defects or damage identified during inspections and replace equipment as necessary to maintain safety standards.

“Trenching and excavation work exposes workers to extremely dangerous hazards. According to the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) data, published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were 130 fatalities recorded in trenching and excavation operations between 2011 and 2016. The private construction industry accounted for 80%, or 104, of those fatalities. An alarming 49% of those construction fatalities occurred between 2015 and 2016. In summary, of the 104 fatalities in this industry:

  1. 40 (38%) were at industrial places and premises;
  2. 39 (38%) were at private residences; and
  3. 21 (20%) occurred at streets or highways”

By prioritizing safety at each stage of the trenching and excavation work we can eliminate the risk, prevent accidents, and ensure the wellbeing of employees.  Keep training updated and point out deficiencies as you see them. Utilize outside training resources to keep the topic fresh.  Look out for each other and keep Wisconsin’s jobsite hazard free. 


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