No Excuse for Trenching Accidents

Having a trained, competent person at the work site is critical to ensure worker safety.
No Excuse for Trenching Accidents
No one should ever work in a trench that isn’t properly shored. A single cubic yard of soil can weigh more than 2,700 pounds and can easily kill or injure someone in a collapse.

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The risks, including death, are well known. Despite being easily prevented, cave-ins during trenching and excavation work continue to occur, killing an average of 40 workers every year.

Whenever he hears of an incident, Ronnie Perkins says, “The first thing that comes to my mind is ‘competent person.’”  

Perkins, safety and education director for Associated General Contractors of Kentucky, stresses that a competent person is the last line of defense for workers and a company.  

“There’s really not an excuse for anyone being injured in a trench accident,” Perkins says. “When you trace it all back, you usually find that they either didn’t have a competent person or that the person really didn’t meet the definition. If you have a competent person who has thoroughly inspected the site, classified the soil, chosen the correct type of protective system and trained all applicable employees in excavation and trenching safety, there should be no trenching accidents.”  

Soil is very heavy; a cubic foot of soil can weigh over 100 pounds. Just 1 cubic yard of soil can weigh more than 2,700 pounds and easily kill or injure someone.  

A competent person, says Perkins, is someone who is capable of identifying existing and predictable hazards or working conditions, and has been given authority by their employer to immediately correct any hazards. The competent person must be knowledgeable about the OSHA standards and the protective systems they choose to use, and must be able to:

  • Classify soil
  • Determine the correct type of protective system
  • Monitor water removal equipment
  • Test for atmospheric hazards when applicable
  • Train all applicable employees in excavation and trenching safety
  • Production over safety

Perkins says schedule pressure is a common cause of skipping steps that can easily eliminate the danger.  

“A lot of it is production related: There are only so many hours and minutes in a day,” Perkins says. “They figure all the extra work to do trench shielding or some kind of protective system is just not necessary, so they take a shortcut and it comes back to haunt them.”  

The consequences can be serious, obviously. Two companies were fined $140,000 each last summer for the death of a 22-year-old worker killed in a Manhattan cave-in. Because they were aware of the situation and failed to remove employees even after being warned by safety officials on the project, officials of both companies were also indicted on manslaughter and other charges. Two companies in Texas were fined $70,000 and $18,000 in September for violations, even though no accident occurred. In California, two construction companies that ignored OSHA stop-work orders in April last year were fined more than $164,000 and $140,000 for sending workers back into unprotected 11-foot excavations. “Safety has to be a line item in the budget. It has to be accounted for,” says Perkins.  

But it’s not just a financial or production issue. “The first ramification is dealing with the families of the victims,” adds Perkins. “What a company owner has to go through dealing with an employee’s family far exceeds any kind of an OSHA penalty.”


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