One of the most persistent problems facing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is workers unprotected in trenching and excavation projects. All excavations are hazardous because they are inherently unstable. That’s why pre-job planning is vital to accident-free trenching; safety cannot be improvised as work progresses.
To help protect workers, OSHA standards mandate that construction excavations 5 feet or deeper be protected against collapse. Protection from cave-ins is also well-known and can take several forms, including use of a trench box. Yet, employers continue to take risks with workers’ lives despite knowing the facts.
Sometimes though, OSHA is lucky enough to intervene before a tragedy occurs.
On March 8, Rick Burns was performing a worksite inspection on a trench being dug by Trimat Construction in Mercerville, Ohio, when he directed an employee to exit the trench believing collapse was imminent. Unfortunately, he was right. Within five minutes, it did collapse and could have buried the worker alive. The employee was working in a trench at a depth greater than 10 feet without cave-in protection. “The actions of the compliance officer likely saved this worker’s life,” said David Wilson, assistant area director in the Columbus area office.
Similarly, on April 20, Compliance Officer Eliseo Hernandez and Assistant Area Director Joseph Roesler from the Mobile, Ala., Area Office were traveling to an inspection near Auburn, Ala. Along the way they noticed an open excavation where employees were not protected from a cave-in. They stopped and immediately opened an inspection. The excavation was approximately 5 and 1/2 feet deep where two employees were working under an excavator bucket connecting a water line. Just after the employees were removed from the hazard at the request of the Compliance Officer, the wall of the excavation fissured and collapsed. No one was hurt, and the emphasis program on excavation and trenching demonstrated its value.
OSHA is currently conducting inspections at both sites, but we know these simple rules can save lives:
- Evaluate soil conditions and select appropriate protective systems.
- Construct protective systems in accordance with standard requirements.
- Preplan; contact utilities (gas, electric) to locate underground lines, plan for traffic control if necessary, determine proximity to structures that could affect choice of protective system.
- Test for low oxygen, hazardous fumes and toxic gases, especially when gasoline engine-driven equipment is running, or the dirt has been contaminated by leaking lines or storage tanks. Insure adequate ventilation or respiratory protection if necessary.
- Provide safe access into and out of the excavation.
- Provide appropriate protections if water accumulation is a problem.
- Inspect the site daily at the start of each shift, following a rainstorm, or after any other hazard-increasing event.
- Keep excavations open the minimum amount of time needed to complete operations.
The fatality rate for excavation work is 112% higher than the rate for general construction. OSHA can’t be everywhere to prevent tragedies, but employers can take the necessary precautions to protect their workers from trenching and excavation hazards.
***For more information on the dangers of trenching and excavation, see OSHA’s Construction e-Tool at http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/etools/construction/trenching/mainpage.html.
Editor’s Note: The Authors, Deborah Zubaty and Kurt Petermeyer, are the OSHA Area Director in Columbus, Ohio, and Mobile, Alabama respectively.