Federal officials warn incidents show ‘an alarming and unacceptable trend that must be halted.’


Never again” he wrote on his Facebook page after a trench in which he was working collapsed in May. A month later, he was dead — killed in another trench cave-in.

He was one of at least 23 workers who died in U.S. trenching mishaps in 2016, compared to just 11 in each of 2014 and 2015. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration released the troubling statistic last November with six weeks left in the calendar year. “There is no excuse,” says Dr. David Michaels, OSHA’s assistant secretary of labor. “These fatalities are completely preventable by complying with OSHA standards that every construction contractor should know.”

According to local media reports, the 33-year-old victim in Ohio posted “Never again ain’t worth it” on his Facebook page after the first incident May 10, 2016. On June 15, he was killed when a sewer line trench that collapsed earlier the same day gave way again. Despite the history of instability, no cave-in protection was provided. OSHA issued the company two willful and two serious safety violations with a proposed penalty of $274,359.

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The citations state that the 60-foot by 12-foot-deep trench had no protection against cave-in, the walls were not property sloped, shored, benched or protected against collapse, and spoils had been placed within 2 feet of the trench. After the trench had collapsed earlier, workers were sent back in to dig out the caved-in soil from the trench. It later collapsed again, trapping the victim under 8 feet of dirt. His body was not recovered until several hours later.

Michaels calls the number of deaths “an alarming and unacceptable trend that must be halted.” The dramatic increase in deaths comes as OSHA has a national emphasis program directed at trenching and excavation, which it lists as one of the most hazardous operations in the construction industry.

“It is truly sad that so many trench collapse fatalities are still occurring despite availability of a wide variety of shoring systems and trench boxes,” says Tony Simunac, sales manager for Pronal-USA, which manufactures and sells the SmartShore inflatable trench shoring system. “The easier the system is to use, the more likely the crews will use it.”

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Rules are clear

OSHA’s Trenching and Excavation Safety fact sheet summarizes the requirements for trenching operations:

Protect yourself

Do not enter an unprotected trench! Trenches 5 feet deep or greater require a protective system unless the excavation is made entirely in stable rock. Trenches 20 feet deep or greater require that the protective system be designed by a registered professional engineer or be based on tabulated data prepared and/or approved by a registered professional engineer.

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Protective systems

There are different types of protective systems. Sloping involves cutting back the trench wall at an angle inclined away from the excavation. Shoring requires installing aluminum hydraulic or other types of supports to prevent soil movement and cave-ins. Shielding protects workers by using trench boxes or other types of supports to prevent soil cave-ins. Designing a protective system can be complex because you must consider many factors: soil classification, depth of cut, water content of soil, changes due to weather or climate, surcharge loads (spoil, other materials to be used in the trench) and other operations in the vicinity.

Competent person

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OSHA standards require that trenches be inspected daily and as conditions change by a competent person prior to worker entry to ensure elimination of excavation hazards. A competent person is an individual who is capable of identifying existing and predictable hazards or working conditions that are hazardous, unsanitary or dangerous to employees, and who is authorized to take prompt corrective measures to eliminate or control these hazards and conditions.

Access and egress

OSHA requires safe access and egress to all excavations, including ladders, steps, ramps or other safe means of exit for employees working in trench excavations 4 feet or deeper. These devices must be located within 25 feet of all workers.

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General trenching and excavation rules

  • Keep heavy equipment away from trench edges
  • Keep surcharge loads at least 2 feet from trench edges
  • Know where underground utilities are located
  • Test for low oxygen, hazardous fumes and toxic gases
  • Inspect trenches at the start of each shift
  • Inspect trenches following a rainstorm
  • • Do not work under raised loads

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