OSHA reveals leading causes of trench violations in construction

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Updated Feb 1, 2021
Emergency personnel respond to a fatal trench collapse December 3 in Gregory, Texas. Photo credit: San Patricio County Sheriff’s OfficeEmergency personnel respond to a fatal trench collapse December 3 in Gregory, Texas. Photo credit: San Patricio County Sheriff’s Office

Excavation violations were the sixth-leading cause of citations issued on construction sites by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration in fiscal year 2019.

Of those violations, failing to provide trench protection was the leading cause for an excavation citation, according to data presented recently by an OSHA official.

Failing to protect a trench from collapse accounted for 805, or 67 percent, of the 1,173 citations for serious excavation violations OSHA issued between October 1, 2018, and September 30, 2019, according to Scott Ketcham, director of OSHA’s Directorate of Construction.

Ketcham provided the statistics at a May 28 webinar on trench safety hosted by the CPWR Center for Construction Research and Training. The event was a lead-up to June being designated Trench Safety Month by the National Utility Contractors Association. Thousands of workers are expected to participate June 15-19 in a Trench Safety Stand Down sponsored by NUCA.

The next leading causes for serious excavation violations, according to Ketcham, were:

(Note: The citations overlap, so percentages and figures will add up to more than 1,173 or 100 percent.)

  • Failure to provide a ladder or other proper means of entering and exiting a trench – 396 citations (34%)
  • Placing spoil too close to a trench where rock and dirt could fall in on employees – 330 (28%)
  • Failure to provide daily inspections of excavations – 302 (26%)
  • Failure by the designated competent person on the jobsite to protect workers from potential cave-in – 106 (9%)
  • Hazards created by water accumulating in a trench – 49 (4%)


Top 10 OSHA construction violations chart


More inspectors stopping for trenches

Ketcham noted that since 2018, OSHA has placed a greater emphasis on trench safety, ramping up inspections on jobsites and its compliance assistance to the construction industry.

The national emphasis program followed a rise in trench deaths from an average of 17 fatalities a year between 2012 and 2014, to an average of 29 a year between 2015 and 2017. Fatalities dropped back to 17 in 2018, he said.

To further illustrate OSHA’s concerns, he showed a photo of two workers installing a septic system liner where they were directing a clamshell bucket above an excavation.

An OSHA-provided photo of a septic liner installation just before a fatal excavation collapse.An OSHA-provided photo of a septic liner installation just before a fatal excavation collapse.

“This is a tragedy in the making moments after this picture was taken,” he said.

After the photo was taken, the bucket was going back into the excavation when the bottom collapsed beneath the workers. One of the workers died after being sucked down underneath the septic tank liner and buried. The worker who was holding onto the bucket was hoisted to safety.

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“This is why we’re focusing in on trenching,” Ketcham said. “It happens in a second. And the conditions can lead to loss of life very quickly.”

Before launching its national emphasis program on trenching in 2018, OSHA examined data from 120 trenching incidents between 2013 and 2017. The agency found that more than half of the incidents occurred at these types of construction sites: single-family or duplex dwellings, pipeline, and roadwork.

That helped OSHA determine its enforcement as well as compliance assistance, Ketcham said.

“Our compliance, safety and health officers are out, actively engaged,” he said, “and if they see a trench, they’re going to stop … and they’re going to evaluate whether or not there are hazards.”


Lack of protection, competent person

A recent survey indicates that many construction sites are still not protecting workers from cave-in and do not have a supervisor trained in trench safety on site.

“When asked the biggest contributors to trench incidents or collapses, 67 percent think there was a lack of proper training, and nearly 60 percent believe it’s a simple indifference to the safety requirements,” said Joe Wise, regional customer training manager for United Rentals Trench Safety. The survey was conducted by CPWR in conjunction with participants in United Rentals’ trench training programs.

Other contributors to trench incidents, according to respondents, were:

  • Trying to stay on schedule – 66%
  • Lack of understanding of OSHA excavation standards – 53%
  • Tight budgets – 35%
  • Language barriers – 21%

For Wise, one of the most telling survey responses involved the “competent person,” as required by OSHA standards to oversee and inspect trenching and excavation.

“More than 40 percent fail to see a trained competent person on their jobsite,” Wise said. “And this is something that is really needing to be changed.”

The competent person’s job is to inspect excavations daily and make sure they are safe, and remove workers when they are unsafe. That includes determining cave-in potential and the proper collapse prevention.

“There’s a lot of things the person has to be responsible for, but first and foremost, it’s conducting the soil analysis to know what that right protective system may be, whether it’s sloping, benching, shielding or shoring,” Wise said.

The survey also indicated most trenches lack proper protection. OSHA standards require that trenches and excavations 5 feet or deeper be protected.

“Sloping, benching, shoring and shielding – they work if they’re done properly,” Ketcham said. “They can prevent these tragedies from happening.”

Ketcham noted, too, that the competent person could also require protection in trenches less than 5 feet deep if conditions warrant it. He mentioned an incident involving a worker in a 3-foot-deep trench that collapsed. “He was leaning over, and he was severely injured – ruptured spleen, broken back.”


More training needed

“We see that the best practice in the industry is repeated training,” Wise said, “that they have anywhere from one to three years for their competent person and not just have a one-and-done achievement of that certification that they’re after.”

Wise presented these highlights from the survey:

  • Trench protection – 23 percent said they never see trench protection, such as sloping, benching, shielding or shoring, on jobsites. 55 percent occasionally see it. And 22 percent say they frequently or always see it.
  • Competent person – 39 percent say they always see a competent person trained in trenching. 27 percent say they frequently see one. 31 percent occasionally see one. And 3 percent never see one.
  • New workers – 21 percent say they frequently see incidents where new workers are exposed to trench and excavation work without proper competent-person supervision. 53 percent say they see this occasionally. 3 percent say they always see this. And 23 percent say they never see new workers in trenches and excavations without proper competent person supervision.

“We’ve also found that incidents often involve contractors who may be inexperienced or may be new to trench work,” Wise said. “Again, it goes back to education.”


Stand down

Credit: National Utility Contractors AssociationCredit: National Utility Contractors Association

Last year, more than 50,000 workers participated in the Trench Safety Stand Down, which has been an annual event since 2016.

This year’s event takes place from June 15 to 19. The stand down week consists of a series of organized events held by NUCA and member and nonmember industry professionals. Industry safety professionals hold safety training, educational seminars, live demonstrations of trench rescues and other activities related to trench safety.

For more details on the stand down, click here, or check out NUCA’s social media channels on Twitter (@NUCA_National), Facebook (NUCA1964), LinkedIn (NUCA National), Instagram (NUCA_National), and its YouTube channel (NUCA National). The social media hashtag is #TrenchSafetyMonth.

In gearing up for the event, United Rentals is holding a free trench safety digital learning series during the week for employers and their workers. The 12-session series focuses on how trench and excavation safety and compliance can help drive productivity. For more details on the series, go to trenchsafetyevents.com.

In summing up the importance of better training and education for the industry, Wise reiterated the dangers facing workers in trenches.

“It just takes a second for something to go tragically wrong,” he said. “And there you have now a worker who’s being asked to make that decision: do I dig them out or do I let them stay there and try to dig themselves out? That’s a horrible situation to put any worker in. And there’s responsibilities and systems in place to prevent that.”

(For more on the business and human costs of trench-collapse fatalities in the United States, see Equipment World’s special report Death by Trench.)