Trenching and Excavation Safety: Planning is Paramount

In an instant and without notice, an unsupported trench can give way and a worker can be buried alive. “Even though small amounts of dirt may not seem treacherous, a single cubic yard of dirt can weigh more than 3,000 pounds, which can fatally crush or suffocate workers,” NIOSH states. OSHA notes that excavation and trenching are among the most hazardous construction operations, with cave-ins being perhaps the most feared trenching hazard. Other hazards in this line of operation include: falls, hazardous atmospheres, and falling loads.

How can employers help keep workers safe? NIOSH recommends that employers do the following before beginning a trenching or excavation project:

·       Designate a trained “competent person” to check that all safety precautions are in place. In relation to trenching, OSHA defines a competent person as “an individual who is capable of identifying existing and predictable hazards or working conditions that are hazardous, unsanitary, or dangerous to workers, soil types and protective systems required, and who is authorized to take prompt corrective measures to eliminate these hazards and conditions.”

·       Call 8-1-1 to ensure no utility lines are in the job area and to mark any existing lines.

·       Locate safe places away from the trench to place spoil piles and heavy equipment paths.

·       Ask the competent person to determine what kinds of protective systems will be needed for the job and have the systems in place before workers are allowed in the trench or excavation.

·       Enforce the rule that workers who are younger than 18 are not allowed in the trench or excavation.

·       Assign workers to the job only if they have been trained about hazards and work practices in a language and at a literacy level they understand.

·       Have a written emergency action plan in place that details the steps to take in the event of a trench incident and do hands-on training of that emergency action plan.

·       Make sure all workers know to never enter an unprotected trench.

·       Teach workers to immediately exit a trench and call for the competent person if they find any evidence of problems with the protective system.

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