Prevent Trench Injuries and Fatalities with Knowledge and Action

Working in trenches and other excavations is one of construction’s most dangerous activities. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the fatality rate for excavation work is 112 percent higher than the rate for general construction.

This past spring, the industry experienced a very unfortunate increase in trench fatalities. These tragic events impacted families and co-workers and are awful to read about and see on the news. The industry is shaken by the dramatic rise in these events and it’s more important than ever for companies to ensure their employees are working safely.

The best way to safeguard workers now and in the future is through knowledge and action. Knowledge about trench hazards and safe work practices in trenching and excavation work. Action to ensure the right trench safety solutions and training programs are in place to support specific excavation needs.

Let’s look at a few steps that organizations can take to advance trench safety knowledge and action.

Adhere to OSHA Standards

OSHA specifies safety standards for protecting workers from cave-ins, which the agency cites as presenting the greatest risk. Because trench construction involves multi-layered situations, these standards address requirements for sloping, benching, shielding and shoring, in addition to soils analysis and guidelines for installing and removing protective systems. Employees – at all levels – need to learn these standards and review them regularly.

Craft a Comprehensive, Written Policy

Companies need policies that comprehensively detail safe trench and excavation practices. The policy process should involve suitable planning and supervision, require recurrent inspections of excavation sites to detect any change in soil conditions, and reinforce support for trenches. A sound policy will detail responsibilities and standardize safe practices for employees.

Commit to Training

One-time training is not enough. Organizations need to reinforce safety messages during safety meetings, toolbox talks and more, and send workers for formal training whenever necessary. Trench safety solutions and protective equipment evolve, so every organization needs to make sure its training keeps up.

Designate a Competent Person

The single most important measure for preventing employee injury or fatality when working in trenches is designating a competent person and ensuring that person is adequately trained. OSHA regulations require every excavation have a competent person in charge of overseeing all aspects of the excavation, including inspecting trenches and identifying potential hazards. The competent person has authorization to take prompt corrective measures to eliminate or control hazards and adverse conditions.

Deploy the Right Protective Solution

OSHA regulations for excavation and trenching operations, covered in Standard 1926 Subpart P, mandate a minimum requirement that contractors use a protective system any time a trench is five feet deep or when even shallower depths are deemed to be unsafe. 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 using shields, shoring, bracing and high-arch clearance spreaders.

It’s vital for companies to consider every safety resource available to workers – including analysis on protective system solutions, onsite consultation and engineering designs.

Leveraging Knowledge and Action to Improve Trench Safety

The ultimate trench protection goal is ensuring safety while also enabling productivity. To achieve this goal, organizations need an OSHA-compliant and complete trench protection system, along with an effective training program that is adopted by all employees.

Companies should also look for partnerships to assist when safety decisions are beyond a company’s typical scope of performance or experience. With the right programs in place, organizations can create a safety culture that not only provides safe jobsites, but also enables workers to be productive in completing projects on schedule and budget.


Joe Wise is a Regional Customer Training Manager for United Rentals® Trench Safety Specialty Business. In his role, he provides strategic oversight to competent person training programs in confined space and excavation safety. He can be reached at jwise@ur.com.

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