Trenching Safety: Digging Into the Safety Steps Employers Need to Know

June 1, 2021 • MEM

An unprotected trench is an extremely dangerous work environment. In 2019, excavation violations were the sixth-leading type of OSHA citation issued in construction sites. These citations reflect that trench collapse is too common. It also typically leads to serious injury or death. As the construction industry continues to grow, so do the risks involved with trenching. To help raise awareness about the importance of trench safety, the National Utility Contractors Association (NUCA) has dedicated June 2021 as Trench Safety Month.

On this episode of the WorkSAFE Podcast, we sit down with Rick Plocinski. He is a Customer Training Specialist for United Rentals. He is also the host of the Behind the Standards with United Rentals podcast, where he discusses his specialty, trench safety.

First, we’ll talk about communicating the importance of trenching safety. Then, we’ll share trench safety essentials for your worksite. Finally, we’ll focus on safety measures employers can implement today.

Listen to this episode on the WorkSAFE Podcast, or read the show notes below.

Trenching safety: Safety equipment that saves lives

In the trenches, safety equipment saves lives. A trench collapse or cave-in can have serious consequences. Buried employees face severe injury or death. Going minutes without oxygen may mean months of recovery. “What we like to do is use personal experiences to explain the importance of using trench safety equipment,” Plocinski explained. He often calls on a certain employee.

After a trench collapse, the employee was buried in a trench for nearly ten minutes. He shares his rescue and recovery story – and the impact on his family. “When they got to him, he was clinically dead,” Plocinski added, still shaken by the incident. The employee had to be revived. Simple commands, like wiggling fingers and toes, were difficult to respond to. As a result, he spent months in the hospital.

The outcome for this employee is amazing. But this isn’t often the case. Trenching safety equipment keeps people alive. It keeps employees safe. It means going home to loved ones at the end of the work day. And every trenching work site needs it.

Breaking down misconceptions

Plocinski points to safety standards as the biggest cause of safety slip-ups. For example, five feet is an important depth in trenching. Many employees think that if the trench is less than that, they don’t need safety equipment. But this just isn’t true. Employees do need to protected at depths greater than five feet. However, situations can change on a work site. Rain can cause unstable conditions. Soil quality may change the deeper you dig. If a cave-in is a possibility – even at less than five feet – some kind of protection system is required.

Soil must be classified before work starts. There are three levels: Type A, Type B, and Type C. Type A is the most stable soil. Type C is the most unstable. A trench can contain more than one soil type. A mistake many employers make is classifying all soil as Type C. Each soil requires different safety equipment. It keeps employees safe. For instance, Type C equipment may not be as effective in Type A soil. An inspection by a qualified person can help. But that’s just the beginning.

Open trench sign

Trenching safety 101

Before hopping into a trench, employees – and their employers – need to be prepared. Has someone checked the soil conditions? Are protective measures in place? What kind of weather is expected for the day? The answers to these questions can mean the difference between life and serious injury. Plocinski shared essential safety measures for the work site.

Have a competent person on-site

Every job site needs a competent person. This employee will identify conditions that are bad for employees. For instance, an environment that is unsanitary or dangerous. They also will have the authority to make important decisions. If employees need to stop work, or more safety measures are needed, a competent person will make that call. But who should that person be? It can’t just be anyone.

“If you have to pick up the phone and call someone else to ask them the question, if you have to get that approval from someone else, you’re not considered a competent person,” Plocinski added. A competent person must have:

  • Required training. They should be familiar with trenching, protection systems, and soil analysis.
  • Experience. They should have prior work experience, which takes time to develop.
  • Authority. They must be able to take actions and protect employees. Only their current employer can give this to them.

Having a competent person on the job site all the time isn’t a requirement. However, without one, employees are at constant risk. A simple rain storm or nearby utilities can affect trench work. A competent person must be nearby to keep an eye out for changing conditions.

Choose the best protection method

There are four basic methods of trench protection. Each one works best in different conditions. First, a competent person can look at the soil condition. Then, they can advise on the best method to use:

  1. Sloping. Soil and material are sloped away from the work area.
  2. Benching. Soil and material are packed into level steps.
  3. Shielding. A structure is put in place to protect employees. It is usually made of steel or aluminum.
  4. Shoring. Direct pressure is applied to soil and material to hold it away from the work area.

“The difference between shoring and shielding is that shoring prevents the cave-in and shields protect you from a cave-in,” Plocinski explained. Both methods are effective. They are just used in different ways.

 Conduct regular inspections

Having a competent person and protection measures in place is a great start. But that isn’t the end of job safety in the trenches. Conditions change often. It’s important to check them before, during, and after work. Before starting a job, check for equipment that’s too close to the trench. Are there any roadways or buildings nearby? All of these things produce vibrations. These tiny movements can loosen soil, especially if it’s already wet or loose.

“When conditions change, the employer must conduct another inspection to determine if additional precautions are necessary to protect employees.” Construction sites are busy places. Equipment is always coming and going. Subcontractors may visit at different stages of work. Shifts change, and employees clock in and clock out. It’s easy to become complacent when so much is happening. But as conditions change, inspections need to be redone.

For example, equipment could arrive during a lunch break. When turned on, it could vibrate. Parked too close to the work area, it could put pressure on the sides of the trench. Getting right back to work is a big risk. The conditions should be checked again. Even the smallest action, like moving equipment a little further away, could save a life.

Excavation professionals on a job site

Prevention is key

The best way to prevent an incident is to plan ahead. Plocinski recommends planning for different types of situations: the job, hazards, and emergencies. What will your competent person do if conditions start to change? He recommends OSHA’s free consultation program as a great way to stay a step ahead of potential incidents. Employers can get a detailed inspection and a list of safety risks to correct. They can even give exceptions – an opportunity to fix errors without a penalty.

“Everybody does deserve to go home in the same condition they started,” he frequently says. It’s impossible to plan for every single situation. But looking a little ways ahead can go long way. With the right training, education, and knowledge, you’ll have what you need to keep people safe in the trenches.

For free safety posters, sample policies, and safety toolkits, visit our Resource Library. Then, learn how organizations come together from across the state of Missouri to promote excavation safety in this WorkSAFE Podcast episode.

June 1, 2021
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