How to Improve Worker Safety in Excavation Projects

According to the survey results, over 70 percent of respondents think they qualified as a competent person for trench work. But what does a competent person do? And how can you confirm qualification?

The Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR) conducted a comprehensive Trench Survey ( to provide greater insight into the rise of trench fatalities. Survey responses drawn from construction, and health and safety professionals by CPWR, United Rentals and Speed Shore Manufacturing identified two important findings – 1) There is a need for more pre-planning on projects and 2) often, trench projects do not have a competent person onsite.

The survey’s goal was to learn about the factors that contribute to trench incidents and fatalities so organizations could collectively identify the steps teams can take to mitigate these incidents. It is important to note that nearly two-thirds of those represented in the survey were workers attending a United Rentals Competent Person training course.

More than 60 percent of those surveyed were placed into an “industry” group, meaning those individuals perform actual trench group work, including construction workers, foreman, supervisors, contractors and even emergency responders. Most of the remaining participants were in health and safety functions – health and safety professionals, safety trainers and compliance officers.

If we dig into the results, we can pinpoint a few areas that stood out as opportunities.

Choosing the Right Trench Protection

Among those surveyed, 20 percent said they never see protection, which includes sloping, shielding, benching and shoring; 50 percent said they only see it occasionally.

The OSHA standard for trenching and excavation (29 CFR 1926.650-652, Subpart P) requires protective systems for trenches five feet or deeper unless the excavation occurs in stable rock. Trenches at least 20 feet deep or approved tabulated data prepared for the system require a registered professional engineer.

The three primary protective systems:

Sloping (benching): Cutting back the trench wall at an angle inclined away from the excavation.

Shoring: Installing aluminum hydraulics or other types of supports to prevent cave-ins.

Shielding: Using trench boxes or other supports to prevent cave-ins.

When planning for an excavation project, consider the following to guide the equipment selection process:

1. Ask why you are excavating. This may seem like a simple question, but the answer may uncover some additional insights and considerations. For example, installing a large system like an electrical vault may require a different protective system than a long, linear gas pipe or water main installation.

2. Excavation size: Consider width, depth and length. Deeper excavations may require different equipment like heavy-duty steel trench boxes or hydraulic bracing.

3. Look around. Are there nearby structures, groundwater issues or overhead obstructions? Consider potential hurdles in installation.

4. Classifying soil type is essential. Be sure to consult your competent person.

5. What is the working area? Consider dirt storage, buildings and roads. All factors may help guide the equipment decision.

Protective equipment to improve productivity and worker safety has become significantly better with advancements in both manufactured systems using tabulated data and site-specific engineered solutions. Lighter-duty shields with high-arch clearance, cut-outs and guide frames, and larger-capacity hydraulic bracing, give companies more options to manage the quality, production and safety of their projects.

Designating a Competent Person

And finally, designate and train the competent person. Making sure the competent person is adequately trained is one of the most important steps in trench safety.

Many OSHA standards, including 1926 subpart P for trenching and excavation, require an onsite competent person to perform certain activities. According to the survey results, over 70 percent of respondents think they qualified as a competent person for trench work. But what does a competent person do? And how can you confirm qualification?

As defined by OSHA, a competent person is “one who is capable of identifying existing predictable hazards in the surroundings or working conditions that are unsanitary, hazardous, or dangerous to employees, and who has the authorization to take prompt corrective measures to eliminate them.”

Duties typically include soil classification, trench inspection at the start of each shift or when conditions change and choosing appropriate trench protective systems if required.

More than 40 percent of the survey respondents failed to see a trained, competent person on their jobsite.

If a company designates a competent person for one activity, he or she is not automatically qualified as a competent person for another. A person may have the skills and knowledge for trench and shoring projects but not necessarily be qualified to inspect scaffolding, conduct a fall hazard analysis or inspect personal fall arrest systems. Large jobsites may even require more than one competent person.

Another interesting takeaway from the survey is almost 70 percent of the respondents didn’t think that the OSHA regulations in standard 1926 subpart P were confusing. However, of the 30 percent that did find them confusing, the unclear areas were (in order):

– Trench sloping and benching safety (depth and width requirements)

– Protective systems

– Competent person’s role and responsibilities

– Access and Egress

Although the requirements from 1926 subpart P haven’t changed, the products and innovations certainly have. It’s not just an awareness of the standards and regulations; it’s leveraging the material and insight from the instructor, practical experience, industry knowledge and solutions – all of which continue to evolve.

Being Dedicated to Training

Safety training is key and now, more than ever, keeping up to date is crucial. There are several different formats and blended learning is on the rise.

A more educated workforce is a safer and more productive workforce. Companies face daily challenges to this goal, and lectures with minimal classroom engagement do not suffice as training. Training organizations with dedicated resources can offer quality safety instruction, together with assistance outside the classroom, including worksite consultation, engineered designs and safety equipment.

Training in excavation safety for competent persons, confined space entry, fall protection, site-specific regulatory compliance and operator certifications are risk management levers that can also improve productivity. And toolbox talks on a regular basis are a good way to reinforce trench safety basics.

Improving Excavation Worksite Safety

The survey uncovered some key findings. Top of the list is the need for more preplanning, followed closely by the lack of onsite competent person. It also unveiled opportunities to increase continuous training and education on the standards in place and safe best practices.

It is always a good idea to consult with a trench safety professional before beginning any trench or excavation project.

Joe Wise is the Regional Customer Training Manager for the Trench Safety business unit of United Rentals. He provides strategic oversight to competent person training programs in confined space, excavation safety and others.

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