Trenches Don’t Have to be Deep to be Dangerous

24-year-old describes how 3-foot, 9-inch excavation nearly took his life.
Trenches Don’t Have to be Deep to be Dangerous
Water must be controlled to prevent cave-ins. Surface water must be diverted or controlled. The competent person must inspect the trench after each rain event. Of course, in this photo there are even more problems, like no trench shield, for starters.

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Note: This is the second of a two-part series on trench safety and the story of a cave-in survivor who dispels the common belief that only deep trenches are dangerous. Part one of the series discusses the need for proper shoring. 

In February 2014, Jordan Baughn was working in Jonesboro, Arkansas, laying storm drain in a 3-foot, 9-inch trench when a chunk of soil, about the volume of a backhoe bucket, rolled on top of him.

“Before I could even think, the dirt was on top of me,” says Baughn, 24, who broke his pelvic bone, ruptured his bladder and spleen, broke a rib and separated his shoulder.

It was nearly a year before he could walk again.

“It doesn’t matter how deep it is, if you get covered up, you might not make it,” Baughn says. “I feel blessed to be alive. If it was a 5-foot trench, I’d be dead today.”

See the video:


“I know how it feels. I got buried many years ago. I got out in time,” says John Fratt of John Fratt Plumbing and Heating in Boca Raton, Florida.

Many are not as lucky.

In July 2015, 31-year-old Brian Powell died from multiple blunt force trauma and traumatic asphyxiation while working in a trench on the site of a retirement facility near Des Moines, Iowa. The accident occurred after heavy rain fell in the area. 

“It’s one of the main factors to make trench excavation more dangerous,” Lee Gard, an OSHA-certified trench instructor and union member of the Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 33, told WHO TV in Des Moines. “Water adds weight to the sides of the soil; it also increases cracks in the soil.”

A cubic yard of soil can weigh more than a ton when wet.

“We’ve had a member in a trench only 36 inches high — 3 feet,” Gard says. “He bent over; the ditch collapsed and actually caved his hips in. It doesn’t need to be a deep ditch to be dangerous.”

A few points to consider:

  • Most of the trenches and excavation in which workers are injured or killed are relatively shallow (5 to 15 feet deep).
  • Many of the workers have not had excavation safety training.

Statistically, the first couple weeks on the job are the most dangerous, says David Dow (pictured), chair of the training committee of the North American Excavation Shoring Association (NAXSA) and co‑founder and vice president of TrenchSafety and Supply.

“You’re new and you want to please the folks you’re working for. And, generally, you’ve not had any training at that point. Getting a bad injury in the first couple weeks is not that uncommon.”

Dow says larger companies tend to have good training programs and a stronger safety culture than smaller companies that may lack the resources.

“Unfortunately, plumbers are in the ground or ditches every day, often without incident,” he says.

“When a trench cave-in occurs, it’s not a broken bone. It’s not a bad cut. It’s not an eye injury. You get smashed. You don’t get a second chance.”

Dow says reducing the number of trench-related deaths and injuries begins with changing the cultural mindset of those who work belowground.

“My granddaddy laid pipe. My daddy laid pipe, and I’m laying pipe too,” Dow says. “They didn’t have any problems and I’m not going to have any problems either ...

“Guys can do it for years, and they hear these stories about people dying in trenches, but they say, ‘That’s someone else. I’m pretty good. I’ve been doing this a long time. I can tell when it’s dangerous,” Dow says. “Each time they do it, it reinforces the fact that ‘I’m pretty good.’ Unfortunately, sometimes it catches up with them.”

Dow offers a few more safety reminders:

The General Requirements Section of OSHA’s Subpart P provides a number of common-sense steps to help ensure worker safety. As with any OSHA Standard or other safety procedure, it is important to always remember that these are the minimum requirements to ensure safe job sites.

7. Hazardous atmospheres
One of the competent person’s responsibilities is to prevent employees from being exposed to hazardous atmospheres in the air or dangerous environments.

  • Oxygen-Deficient Atmosphere — Normal air is 20.9 percent oxygen. An oxygen-deficient atmosphere has less than 19.5 percent oxygen.
  • Oxygen-Enriched Atmosphere — It has 23.5 percent or more oxygen.
  • Carbon monoxide causes oxygen starvation, and can be fatal at a concentration of just 1 percent for one minute.
  • Hydrogen sulfide is a very common toxic gas, and methane is a very common flammable gas. Both are regularly found in underground construction, particularly around sewers.

If there is a possibility that a hazardous atmosphere exists, or could reasonably be expected to exist, the air should be tested before employees enter a trench or manhole. Provide respirators or ventilation when needed. And retest the air continuously to ensure that the trench remains safe.

8. Emergency rescue equipment
Such equipment must be available when a hazardous atmosphere exists or could reasonably be expected to exist. Employees entering confined spaces must be properly trained. Harnesses and life lines are required whenever employees enter bell-bottom pier holes and other deep confined spaces. Life lines must be attended at all times.

9. Water accumulation
Water must be controlled to prevent cave-ins. Methods for controlling water vary with each situation. Employees are not permitted to work in trenches where accumulation exists unless:

  • Special support systems or shields are used to protect employees from cave-ins
  • Water removal equipment is used and monitored by the competent person to prevent water accumulation
  • Safety harnesses and life lines are used to protect employees

Surface water must be diverted or controlled. The competent person must inspect the trench after each rain storm.

10. Stability of adjacent structures
The objective is to protect employees from cave-ins.

  • A support system, such as shoring, bracing or underpinning, must be used to support structures that may be unstable due to excavation operations
  • Excavating below the base or footing of a foundation or wall is not permitted unless:
    — A support system is provided to ensure the stability of the structure
    — The excavation is in stable rock (this is very rare)
    — The operation is approved by a registered professional engineer
  • Support systems must be provided for sidewalks, pavements and other structures that may be affected by excavation operations

11. Protection of employees from loose rock or soil
Employees must be protected from being struck by soil or rocks that are falling or rolling from the edge and face of a trench. Spoils and equipment must be set back at least 2 feet from the edge of a trench.

12. Fall protection
It is required that walkways and bridges be provided over trenches that are least 6 feet above lower levels and are greater than 30 inches wide. Bridges and walkways must be equipped with standard guard rails and toe boards. Additional fall protection may also be required.

13. Remotely located excavations
Examples are wells, pits, shafts, trenches, other excavations, etc. They must be backfilled, covered or barricaded.

14. Inspections
A competent person must make all inspections.

A final thought: Working in trenches and excavations is one of the most hazardous types of work. As many as 400 workers have been killed each year in trenches and excavations across the United States.

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