Staying Safe When Working in Trenches and Excavation
Many construction projects require workers to dig trenches or perform excavation work. Injuries and fatalities continue to occur in these situations, even with OSHA regulations, guidelines and prevention measures in place. That’s why it’s important for safety and health professionals to have a thorough understanding of hazards associated with trench and excavation work, as accidents related to them are not only recognizable, but preventable.
Defining Trenches and Excavation
What exactly is a trench? What is the definition of excavation? It’s important to understand and define these terms to recognize when you have a hazard present at your worksite, and to be able to take the right safety measures to prevent accidents.
OSHA defines a trench as a narrow underground excavation that is deeper than it is wide, and is no wider than 15 feet. Trenches are used for many different types of civil engineering projects, from pipes and roads to telephone wires. An excavation is defined as a man-made cut, cavity, trench, or depression in the earth’s surface, formed by earth removal.
The bottom line is that construction projects of all sorts that move dirt from one location to another can pose an assortment of risks, including cave-ins but also related peripherally to hazardous atmospheres, falling materials or objects, water accumulation and damaged underground utilities.
Trench Accidents By the Numbers
It’s little wonder that OSHA has made reducing trench and excavation hazards a top priority. Consider these statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics: in 2016, fatalities related to trenches and excavation were nearly double the average of the previous five years. The greatest risk to workers’ lives, statistics show, is posed by trench cave-ins or collapses.
OSHA Standards and Preventing Trench Cave-ins and Collapses
OSHA recommends a combination of engineering controls, protective equipment and safe work practices as necessary elements to minimize hazards associated with trenches and excavated areas. Its standards require that trenches and protective systems be inspected daily and as conditions change by a competent person before work begins.
As cave-ins and collapses are one of the greatest risks to workers lives, OSHA details three specific preventative safety measures on this front: slope or bench trench walls, shore trench walls with support, or shield trench walls with trench boxes.
New Compliance Resources and Safety Tips
The U.S. Department of Labor has released a new video as a compliance resource for those who work around trenches and excavated areas. The public service announcement addresses ‘5 Things You Should Know to Stay Safe in a Trench’ including:
- Ensuring safe entry and exit
- Having cave-in protection
- Keeping materials away from the edge of the trench
- Looking for hazards like standing water
- Only entering trenches that have been inspected
Signage to Support Safety Measures
A tried and true method to support the use of engineering controls, protective equipment and safe work practices is to install safety signs. In this way, signage plays an important role in minimizing risk, ensuring that those entering and working near the area are aware of potential dangers and are taking the precautions necessary to stay safe.