Do You Know OSHA Trench Safety Rules?

A recent construction survey reveals excavation companies disregard safety regulations and laborers lack basic knowledge before they jump in a trench

Do You Know OSHA Trench Safety Rules?

 This photo submitted by a contractor shows an OSHA trench safety violation. A worker standing in a trench 5 feet or deeper must be protected by shoring, shielding, benching or sloping. The identities of the workers involved were digitally obscured. (file photo)

Last month, I reviewed the list of 2019 Top 10 safety violations as announced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and wrote in general terms about the need for the onsite installer community to focus on a safe work environment.

Now I would like to zero in on one of the biggest concerns I have when reviewing hundreds of work photos to include in the magazine every month: trench safety awareness. It is not unusual to see photos of our featured contractors at work and note a lack of proper trench security. Some of these photos must be discarded so we don’t inadvertently show an OSHA violation.

According to OSHA rules, any trench 5 feet or deeper must be evaluated and protected from potential collapse. And even shallower trenches must be inspected by a certified “competent person” on the site before work begins.

A chilling tale

A recent webinar, “Increasing Awareness of Factors That Influence Trench Safety,” was presented by the Center for Construction Research and Training. It featured safety experts Scott Ketcham, director of OSHA Directorate of Construction; Joe Wise, regional customer training manager for United Rentals - Trench Safety; and Alan Echt, industrial hygienist for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

The webinar, available on YouTube at, starts with a chilling recounting of the death of an onsite installer who was hooking up a septic tank in a deep trench. In the webinar, we see a photo of two workers and an excavator being operated overhead. A moment after the snapshot was taken, the walls of the trench collapsed, burying one of the workers inside the septic tank.

“This happens in a second, and this is why we focus on trenches. These conditions can lead to the loss of a life very quickly,” Ketcham said. “It’s a tragedy in the making, and all of us are working together to reduce the hazards in this industry and increase awareness.”

Wise reinforced the dangers of unprotected trenches and why contractors should be careful not to put their crews at risk.

“It just takes a second for something to go tragically wrong. And there you now have a worker who’s being asked to make that decision. … Do I dig them out, or do I let them stay there and try to dig themselves out? That’s a horrible situation to put any worker in.”

Surge of deaths

Beginning in 2015, OSHA reported a surge in underground construction fatalities due to trench collapse. In 2012 to 2014, there was an average of 17 U.S. trench-related fatalities in the construction industry. That number spiked to 25 in 2015, 37 in 2016 and 24 in 2017. Of the 120 trench collapse incidents reported from 2013 to 2017, 53% happened at single-family residences, with smaller numbers in pipelines and roadwork. This seems to indicate that safety training and awareness needs to be improved in the onsite industry.

“We feel good that we’re making some headway in this and bringing it down, but we also have to say with collaborative efforts with the industry, we’re elevating awareness that these incidents are preventable using sloping, shoring, shielding or benching,” Ketcham said.

Among excavation-related OSHA violations for 2019, 330 were for loose rock and soil, 302 were for lack of daily inspection of excavations, 106 were for competent-person violations and 49 were for hazards associated with water accumulation in trenches. Contractor companies are required to have a worker trained as a “competent person,” who is certified to evaluated work sites daily for trench-related hazards. Failure to have that trained person on site leads to many of the other violations.

Survey results

Wise elaborated on a survey of 3,600 people taking competent person training; 60% were construction workers, supervisors or contractors in the field. The majority of those surveyed worked for companies with 20 or more employees. So the respondents were likely to already have more safety awareness than typical small installer operations and family installer operations, he said.

The results of six questions raised alarms with safety experts:

How often did you see no protection on a job site? 74.4% said always, frequently or occasionally.

Is there a competent person trained in trenching on the job site? 57% answered frequently, occasionally or never.

Do you see incidents where new workers are exposed to trench/excavation work without proper competent person supervision? 75.5% answered always, frequently or occasionally.

Are there any parts of OSHA’s trench standard that may be confusing to those required to comply? 30% of actual field workers said yes and elaborated: 57.7% said trench sloping and benching safety measures (depth and width requirements); 43.4% cited protective systems; 33.7% said competent person role and responsibilities; and 18.3% said access and egress rules were confusing.

How often do you have trouble with proper installation, understanding manufacturers’ tabulated data and use of trench safety equipment? 50.2% answered always, frequently or occasionally.

Which of the following do you believe are the biggest contributors to trench incidents or collapses? 66.6% said a lack of training on trench safety; 65.2% said trying to stay on schedule; 50.6% said indifference (e.g., “it won’t happen on my watch”); 48.3% said lack of knowledge of OSHA trenching and excavation standards; 29% said tight budgets; 18.8% said language barriers.

What's next?

The answers left Wise to think OSHA and other agencies have a lot of work to do in getting the safety message out. The panelists said they are working on trench safety summits planned for this fall in Boston; Orlando, Florida; Los Angeles; and Denver through the North American Excavation Shoring Association. Efforts are also underway to produce virtual training programs as the country grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“More planning is needed. We can’t just show up, start digging and make things happen,” Wise said. “There needs to be a process of understanding what adjacent structures could be impacted. Is there traffic and vibrations? Do we have areas where there may be pedestrians? Do we need to keep people out of the way and barricade around the excavation?”

Wise concluded that most trenches are unprotected. Another conclusion is that knowledge and implementation of competent-person requirements is lacking. He said business owners need to appoint someone to seek this certification — and repeat and refresh the training so they understand the hazards, perform soils analysis and know what shoring solutions will work in any situation.

“This is most important. It’s where everything starts,” Wise continued. “It has to be deemed by the employer, and that person has to be qualified. Incidents often involve contractors who are inexperienced or new to trench work, or new workers without proper competent-person supervision.”

Wise added that any site needs to be carefully evaluated, even when trenches are shallow and don’t appear to present a danger.

“Let’s be honest: A cubic foot of dirt can sometimes weigh over 100 pounds, and workers who are doing that job are found to be bent over or on their knees. (A collapse is) very sudden,” he said. “Those I’ve had a chance to meet who have survived trench collapses will tell you they went to work not expecting that to ever happen to them. But it can happen in an instant.” 


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