You Can't Afford to Ignore Excavation Safety

Taking the proper precautions is the best thing for your employees and your company’s bottom line.
You Can't Afford to Ignore Excavation Safety
Any trench 5 feet or deeper requires a protective system: benching, sloping, shoring, or shielding. If the trench is less than 5 feet deep, a “competent person” could determine that a protective system is not needed.

Interested in Education/Training?

Get Education/Training articles, news and videos right in your inbox! Sign up now.

Education/Training + Get Alerts

Every time you dig a trench, you are putting workers at risk. As the trench gets deeper, the risks get higher and the more management practices are needed to make sure the trenching is being done safely. 

Two workers are killed every month, on average, in trench collapses in the U.S., according to OSHA. The agency cites “economic pressures, a belief that compliance is unnecessary or an expectation that these short-term operations will go undetected” as key reasons why regulations are not followed, even after years of emphasis. 

Any trench 5 feet or deeper requires a protective system: benching, sloping, shoring or shielding. If the trench is less than 5 feet deep, a “competent person” could determine that a protective system is not needed. A competent person is one who has been trained in such things as soil classification, water content of the soil, and other matters that could pose a risk to trench integrity. Protective systems in trenches 20 feet deep or greater must be designed by a registered professional engineer or be based on data prepared or approved by one. (A trench wider than 15 feet falls under excavation regulations.) 

Workers must also be provided safe access methods. Such ladders, steps and ramps must be within 25 feet of all workers in any trench 4 feet or deeper. The regulations include several other provisions, such as regular inspection (by a competent person), keeping heavy equipment away from trenches, storing spoils at least 2 feet from the edge, atmospheric testing, and suspended/raised loads safety. 

Beyond safety of workers, there are practical business reasons for proper trenching practices. A Philadelphia plumbing company was hit with more than $40,000 in fines for excavation violations while installing a residential sewer line a couple years back. The OSHA violations included the lack of a protective system, no barrier for the spoil pile, inadequate training, and failure to have a hazard communication program. 

Making matters worse, three of the violations were repeat events, escalating the enforcement action and accounting for $36,960 in fines. Four were ranked as serious, which added another $3,520 for a total fine of $40,480. That’s an expensive bill for shaving a few minutes off a job. 

The violations could also have resulted in serious harm, or death, for the workers. Imagine having to deal with that: the fines, civil liability, bad publicity – having to notify the worker’s family that they will never see their loved one again. 

Besides posing the greatest risk, cave-ins are the most common accident involving trenches. One cubic yard of soil weighs as much as a car (a 1-ton dump truck carries roughly 5 cubic yards). Other risks include falls, falling loads, accidents with moving equipment, underground utilities, and even hazardous atmospheres.

While the onus for safety falls on the employer, workers are their own best protection. As an OSHA trench safety poster states, “An unprotected trench is an early grave.” 

Online Resources
Half the states are covered by OSHA’s regulations, 25 others have adopted their own standards (as have Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands). Most state standards are identical to OSHA’s, but some have other standards. Learn more at


OSHA eTool


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.