Know the Dangers of Working in Trenches

By Roy Maurer Feb 2, 2015

Dirt is heavy. One cubic yard of dirt is the weight of a midsized car, according to the Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR). A trench collapse can suffocate or crush a worker in seconds.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited Northern Excavating Co. of Jamestown, N.D., on Jan. 15, 2015, for putting its workers at “great risk” in trenches without cave-in protection and a safe means to exit the trench, the agency said.

The company has been cited eight times for trench safety violations since 1997, and failed to pay its most recent penalties from a 2011 inspection.

In July 2014, OSHA inspectors witnessed two employees repairing a valve on a city water line in Ross, N.D., in an 8-foot trench. An investigation followed, and the agency cited the company for two willful violations and one serious violation with penalties of $147,000. For its continual failure to protect workers from cave-in hazards, the company has been placed in OSHA’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program.

OSHA standards mandate that all excavations five feet down or deeper be protected against collapse.

Northern Excavating was cited for not providing a protective system for the trench and failing to have a designated, “competent” person available to remove an employee from the hazardous trench, if necessary.

Working in Trenches

OSHA requires every excavation job to have a person appointed by the employer as the competent person. This person must inspect the trench every day before work, after rain and when conditions change. When there is a problem, the competent person has the authority to stop work and fix it. Workers should only work inside a trench box or shored areas of a trench if the trench is not sloped or benched. Hard hats should be worn at all times in the trench.

“It only takes a second for a trench to collapse, so always be aware of your escape route,” said the CPWR. “If you’re in a trench four feet or deeper, you must be within 25 feet of a ladder, ramp or stairway.”

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.​

Follow him @SHRMRoy

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