Associations Encourage Trench Safety

June 30, 2020

In an effort to raise awareness of the dangers of trenching and excavation, and encourage the use of potentially life-saving protective systems, the National Utility Contractors Association (NUCA) is partnering with the North American Excavation Shoring Association (NAXSA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) urged employers to participate in the fifth annual Trench Safety Stand Down week, which occurred June 15 to 19. This gave employers the opportunity to talk directly to employees about important safety issues, including dangerous trench-related hazards and the steps workers can take to avoid them.

According to data from OSHA, 17 trench workers died in trench accidents in 2018. One cubic yard of soil weighs up to 3,000 pounds. That is about the weight of an average midsize car. Even if a worker’s head and arms are above the dirt, the weight of the soil is so heavy that it can crush the worker, causing death within minutes. If a trench collapses, it is nearly impossible to rescue workers in time to save them.

How Should Employers Prepare for Trench Safety Stand Down?

Any employer who wishes to improve the safety conditions at trench sites and prevent trenching and excavation hazards can still participate in the stand down. In order the have a successful Trench Safety Stand Down Week, NUCA and NAXSA urge employers to take the following steps:

  • Choose an employee to be the program coordinator and assign managers to specific projects throughout the week to ensure that all employees participate in stand down activities.
  • Encourage subcontractors, engineers, owners, and other individuals associated with the trench projects to participate in the Trench Safety Stand Down Week.
  • Review the company’s current safety program to identify potential hazards, improvements that can be made, training protocols that can be revised, and whether there is better equipment available.
  • Plan when the Stand Down activities will take place and make a company-wide announcement so managers can plan for it.
  • Develop presentations that meet the specific needs of the company and its employees and encourage all employees to voice concerns and offer suggestions.
  • Promote the stand down by distributing flyers and informing job sites about the event.
  • Urge trench crews to audit their work sites and identify specific hazards prior to the stand down.
  • Follow up on some of the key issues discussed and make the necessary changes.

What are Common Trench and Excavation Safety Issues?

When a trench collapses while workers are still working, it can cause devastating injuries and fatalities. Each year, an average of 24 workers are killed in trench collapse accidents, and hundreds more suffer severe injuries that have lasting physical and emotional scars. The following are main safety issues associated with working in trenches or tunnels:

  • Falls: When the appropriate safety signage is not present near trench sites, it can create a serious fall hazard.
  • Cave-ins: These accidents are particularly devastating, as workers can be crushed by thousands of pounds of dirt.
  • Asphyxiation: If there is inadequate ventilation in the trench, and workers do not have the appropriate ventilation equipment, workers can die from lack of oxygen or exposure to toxic fumes.

What Types of Injuries Do Trench Accidents Cause?

Unfortunately, trench accidents can often be fatal, but workers who survive a trench accident can suffer from the following injuries:

Brain and spinal cord injuries: These injuries occur if a worker falls into a trench, if the trench collapses, or if a piece of heavy equipment falls into the trench and hits a worker. If the injury is serious, it can cause permanent disability or death.

Organ damage: This can lead to hypoxia, which occurs when the brain and other organs suffer damage after not receiving enough oxygen. Depending on how long the worker went without sufficient oxygen, the damage can be permanent.

Broken bones, crush injuries, and amputations: Cave-ins, falls, and heavy equipment accidents can cause fractures, bone and tissue damage, or amputations. These injuries often require multiple surgeries and ongoing physical therapy.

How Can Workers Prevent Trench Accidents?

Install the following protective systems: 

Sloping and benching: Sloping is the cutting back of a trench wall at an angle, and benching is the process of creating steps to safely travel up and down the wall.

Shoring: This involves creating a support system made up of timber and mechanical parts that prevents cave-ins.

Trench shields: Also known as trench boxes, these are meant to protect workers should a collapse occur.

Assign a competent person to be in charge: OSHA requires that a competent person be assigned to each trench job. That person should be a professional engineer, trained in identifying potential hazards for employees and eliminating dangers quickly. This person is responsible for performing the following tasks:

– Classifying soil

– Inspecting protective systems

– Designing structural ramps

– Monitoring water removal equipment

– Conducting site inspections