National Safety Council

In an instant and without notice, an unsupported trench can give way and a worker can be buried alive. “ Event hough 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 work include falls, hazardous atmospheres and falling loads. From 2000 to 2009, 350 workers died in trenching or excavation cave-ins. How can employers help keep workers safe?

Planning is paramount

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 811 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 on-site.

● Enforce the rule that workers who are younger than 18 are not allowed in the trench.

● 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 an emergency action plan in place that details steps to take in the event of a trench incident.

● Make sure workers know never to 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 trenching system.

Falls in construction: A deadly hazard

Between 2003 and 2013, falls were the leading cause of death in the construction industry, resulting in more than 3,500 fatalities, according to OSHA. During that time, falls from roofs made up roughly 34 percent of the deaths – all of which were preventable.

What should employers do?

As part of its nationwide campaign to raise awareness among workers and employers about the hazards of falls from ladders, scaffolds and roofs, OSHA has created a “Plan. Provide. Train.” webpage at The agency notes that fall-related deaths can be prevented by following three steps:

Plan: When it comes to construction work performed at height, employers need to think ahead. OSHA advises starting this process by first deciding exactly how the project will be completed, what tasks will be involved and what personal protective equipment workers will need to complete the project. Make sure to include the cost of PPE for workers when estimating the cost of a project.

Provide: It’s imperative that workers are provided with the proper fall protection and tools, including harnesses, ladders, scaffolds and other safety gear. OSHA notes that some equipment, such as ladders and scaffolds, are appropriate for different jobs. Provide workers with the correct PPE for the specific task at hand, and ensure it is in good working condition.

Train: Although providing workers with appropriate fall protection is critical, they also must know how to use it. Train workers on the proper setup and safe use of equipment, and ensure they understand why it is important to know how to use the PPE.

OSHA also promotes the idea of being a role model for workers. “Lead by example,” the agency states. “Employers, project managers and supervisors should follow the rules they are responsible for enforcing.”