Toiling Safe in the Trenches

trench box

“I’m digging in the dirt, stay with me I need support” is a recurring lyrical line from Peter Gabriel’s 1992 hit single “Digging in the Dirt.”

The need for some form of support or protective system to prevent earthwork cave-ins becomes apparent when considering that two workers are killed every month in trench collapses and that a cubic yard of soil can weigh as much as a car.  That’s roughly 4,000 pounds for those who like digging into the details.  OSHA’s fact sheet on Trenching and Excavation Safety states that “cave-ins from trenching and excavation pose the greatest risk and are much more likely than other excavation-related accidents to result in worker fatalities.”  The other related risks include falls, falling loads, hazardous atmospheres, and incidents involving mobile equipment.

MEMIC’s Excavations Can Equal Graves blog cites the following steps employers need to take to safeguard employees when trenching or excavating. They include but are not limited to:

  • Having a competent person onsite at all times
  • Conducting a soil classification to determine its stability and the corresponding protective system needed
  • Sloping or benching (forming a series of horizontal steps) per the type of soil
  • Providing stairways, ladders or ramps for entry and exit
  • Removing water accumulation 
  • Testing air quality for low oxygen, hazardous fumes and toxic gases

OSHA’s Safety and Health Topics on trenching and excavation provides additional resources such as an OSHA QuickCardTM, a fact sheet, and a poster (with a Spanish version of each), as well as a link to the National Utility Contractors Association’s Trench Safety Stand Down page.  This year’s event will be held from June 18-23, with 2017’s stand-down reaching more than 10,000 workers.  The NUCA site offers support on becoming a participating organization with its own resources such as a TSSD flyer, sign-in sheet, and completion form available to conduct a successful trench safety stand-down.      

So, when it comes to protective systems for trenching and excavation, particularly with shielding, being the “man in the box” is the smart way of toiling safe in the trenches. 

By Greg Larochelle