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Twenty-three construction workers died in trench collapses in 2016, surpassing the combined total from 2014 through 2016, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

In response to the recent increase in trench-related work deaths, effective October 1, 2018, OSHA updated its National Emphasis Program on trenching and excavation safety.

"Removing workers from and helping workers identify trenching hazards is critical," OSHA acting leader Loren Sweatt said in an October press release. "OSHA will concentrate the full force of enforcement and compliance assistance resources to help ensure that employers are addressing these serious hazards."

OSHA has a number of compliance assistance materials to help cities keep employees working in trenches safe, including:

  • A 45-second video, "5 Things You Should Know to Stay Safe," which also highlights well-known and proven safety measures that can eliminate hazards and prevent worker injuries.
  • An updated trenching operations QuickCard which provides information on protecting workers around trenches, including daily inspections and trench wall safety.
  • OSHA's revised "Protect Workers in Trenches" poster provides a quick reminder of the three ways to prevent dangerous trench collapses: slope or bench trench walls, shore trench walls with supports, or shield trench walls with trench boxes. The poster is available in English and Spanish.
  • An updated trenching and excavation webpage which provides additional information on trenching hazards and solutions.

What should cities do?

Cities should safeguard employees and educate them that going into an unprotected trench for any reason and for any period of time can have fatal consequences. OSHA defines trenches as "a narrow underground excavation that is deeper than it is wide, and is no wider than 15 feet." One cubic yard of soil can weigh up to 3,000 pounds and can cause sudden cave-ins that are extremely devastating.

"The OSHA standard for trenching and excavation — 29 CFR 1926.650-652, Subpart P — requires protective systems for trenches that are five feet or deeper, unless the excavation occurs in stable rock. A registered professional engineer must design protective systems for trenches that are at least 20 feet deep or approve tabulated data prepared for the system," according to Kevin Druley of the National Safety Council.

OSHA requires a competent person onsite for all trenching and excavation activities who is trained to identify the protective system needed to protect employees. This person must also be able to evaluate the weather conditions, soil classification, water content of the soil, and other trenching hazards.

SCMIT members have access to a free online trenching and excavation course with LocalGovU. Cities can also order free stickers from OSHA intended to remind workers of the three primary protective systems: sloping, shoring, and shielding, by calling 1.800.321.OSHA. Also, South Carolina OSHA offers free onsite training for city employees.