Following a sharp uptick in trench-related fatalities, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced earlier this summer that it would increase its enforcement efforts with regard to trench and excavation safety. Given this enhanced enforcement initiative and the hazards associated with this type of work, it behooves employers to make sure their trenching and excavation practices fully comply with OSHA requirements.
Rise in Trench-Related Fatalities
Trenching and excavation work exposes workers to dangerous hazards. Most trenching and excavation fatalities result from collapses. In 2021, there were 15 fatalities in trenching and excavation operations. This number rose sharply to 22 during the first six months of 2022, culminating in a June 28 incident in Jarrell, Texas, in which two workers suffered fatal injuries when an unprotected trench greater than 20 feet deep collapsed on them. According to OSHA, trench shields, which could have saved the workers’ lives, sat unused at the site. Shortly following this incident, OSHA announced its enhanced enforcement initiative.
Enhanced Enforcement Initiative
OSHA announced in July that its enforcement staff would “consider every available tool” at the agency’s disposal. “These actions will place additional emphasis on how agency officials evaluate penalties for trenching and excavation related incidents, including criminal referrals for federal or state prosecution to hold employers and others accountable when their actions or inactions kill workers or put their lives at risk,” OSHA said in a statement.
In keeping with its existing National Emphasis Program for excavations, OSHA said its compliance officers will perform “more than 1,000 trench inspections nationwide, where they may stop by, and inspect, any excavation site during their daily duties.”
OSHA defines an excavation as “any man-made cut, cavity, trench, or depression in the Earth’s surface formed by earth removal.” Cave-ins pose the greatest risk to workers; 1 cubic yard of soil can weigh as much as a car, according to OSHA. But there are other hazards associated with excavation work, including falling loads, hazardous atmospheres and hazards from mobile equipment. OSHA excavation standards are designed to reduce risks from all excavation-related hazards.
OSHA Requirements for Excavation Safety
OSHA requires that employers involved in excavation conduct preplanning and design protective systems that take many factors into consideration, including soil classification, the depth of the trench, water content of the soil, weather and climate, and other operations. Different types of protective systems include:
Before any work begins, trenches and protective systems must be inspected daily and whenever conditions change by a competent person, who is appointed by the employer. This individual must be capable of identifying existing and predictable hazards in the working conditions or the surroundings and be authorized to take prompt corrective measures to eliminate them.
Trenches that are 5 feet deep or more require a protective system. For 20-foot trenches or greater, the protective system must be designed by a registered professional engineer. For trenches less than 5 feet, a competent person may determine that a protective system is not required.
Other safety measures include keeping heavy equipment away from trench edges, knowing where underground utilities are located before digging and testing for hazards such as low oxygen and hazardous fumes or gases.
Given the risks involved with excavation and OSHA’s heightened focus on this specific area, it’s important for construction companies and other employers who do excavation work to comply with OSHA regulations for identifying hazards and safeguarding workers.
If you need assistance with an OSHA matter, contact the OSHA lawyers at Sheehy, Ware, Pappas & Grubbs. We have assisted hundreds of employers in OSHA matters, including compliance, investigations, settlement mediation and litigation.