There are many excavations and trenching hazards that can result in serious risks to the safety and health of workers. Reducing risk exposures will not only improve worker morale but also enhance the worksite safety culture.

Excavating is a common activity when doing construction work. But digging deep into the earth to lay foundations and build underground trenches has its own set of risks. To ensure you safeguard yourself from the hazards associated with excavations, it is important to know what the dangers are and learn how to protect yourself as well as your co-workers.

There have been many instances when accidents during trenching and excavation operations have resulted in worker injuries and fatalities. Earlier this year, OSHA, the regulatory supervisory body, cited a company in Long Island for $135,612 in penalties when a trench of approximately 30-feet in depth collapsed in Oyster Bay leading to the deaths of two workers (OSHA News Release – Region 2, 2021). This shows that while you need to adopt safety practices, it is equally critical for employers to have a safety mindset and provide relevant knowledge, safety equipment, personal protective gear, and adequate safety training for your security and safety while at work.

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Before discussing excavation protective requirements, let’s first identify some of the hazards associated with working in excavations and trenches.

Excavation and Trenching Hazards

One of the most common hazards that workers face when doing excavation work is the collapse of the excavation or trench, often referred to as a cave-in. When a cave-in occurs, this gives rise to another dangerous situation for workers where they may run out of oxygen, resulting in asphyxiation.

When digging deep into the earth, many gases may get released. While some may not be harmful other underground gases could be toxic resulting in rendering the worker unconscious due to the hazardous atmosphere that has suddenly developed in the trench or excavation.

Falling is extremely common and we have all experienced it many times in our lives. However, falling into an excavation is a risky business, especially if it’s a deep excavation. Such as fall could lead to severe injuries or even be fatal! Similarly, items falling into excavated areas are also another danger to beware of. Falling objects, especially those with pointed or sharp edges or items made of iron such as a hammer, would endanger the people working inside the excavations. This is also true when excavated soil and other materials kept too close to the edge of the trench or excavation may slip and fall onto the people below. Such falling loads could bury workers and lead to asphyxiation or in the case of large rocks, cause serious injury.

If digging close to known underground utilities or powerlines, ensure that all necessary precautions are taken, or you will expose yourself to the risk of electrocution. Also, when using powered equipment inside excavations, ensure that there is no water seepage from the ground, or this may again lead to electrical shocks.

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Explosions and fires are another two prevailing hazards when working in excavations and trenches. As explosives may be used in such areas, every precaution must be taken to safeguard against unexpected and accidental explosions. When digging underground, gas pockets preserved in the earth may be displaced. If these gases are flammable, then there could be an increased risk of fire when it mixes with oxygen or when exposed to a spark from an electrical tool.

Another possibility is drowning. This could occur if a worker or the equipment used during excavations results in accidentally digging into an underground water source which fills the excavation site with workers unable to get out in time.

Finally, the prevalent dangers of using tools, heavy equipment, and mobile equipment in completing any work task at a contrition site also apply when undertaking excavations.

Measures to Safeguard Against the Dangers When Working in Excavations

The following are some of the practices that must be adopted at an excavation or trenching site.

  1. Planning to have sufficient and clear access and egress points in excavation sites and trenches.
  2. Testing and monitoring the atmosphere inside trenches and excavation.
  3. Putting in place procedures to reduce the exposure to falling loads. For example, keeping soil and other excavated material away from the edges of an excavated site.
  4. Making sure a Competent Person conducts inspections of trenches and excavation sites.
  5. Installation of the correct type of protective systems for trench/excavation sidewalls (benching, sloping, shoring, and shielding) to prevent a cave-in.
  6. Utilizing the services of a registered professional engineer as recommended by OSHA regulations on excavations.
  7. Monitoring equipment such as water removal equipment to ensure they are in proper working order.

For more details on these safety measures, Excavation and Trenching – Hazards and Safeguards is a must-read!

Remember, safety can only be practiced with knowledge and foresight. So, ensure that you receive the relevant OSHA excavations and trenching training to guide you when carrying out work tasks during excavation or trenching operation. In fact, training is a great way to understand OSHA’s excavation and trenching regulations. So, get yourself enrolled in online training today!

OSHA HAZWOPER Training offers great value for money and interactive training course. Visit us at https://hazwoper-osha.com/


OSHA News Release – Region 2. (2021, March 31). New York contractor agrees to cease digging excavations, pay $135K in penalties, after 2020 fatal Long Island trench collapse. Website. https://www.osha.gov/news/newsreleases/region2/03312021

OSHA. (2011). OSHA Fact Sheet. Trenching and Excavations Safety [PDF]. Website. https://www.osha.gov/OshDoc/data_Hurricane_Facts/trench_excavation_fs.pdf

OSHA. (n.d.). Trenching and Excavation eTools. Website. https://www.osha.gov/etools/construction/trenching