Having a trained, competent person at the work site who knows about identifying and predicting hazards is a big benefit
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 one cubic yard of soil can weigh more than 2,700 pounds and can 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 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.”
OSHA's updated guide to Trenching and Excavation Safety highlights key elements of the applicable workplace standards and describes safe practices that employers can follow to protect workers from cave-ins and other hazards.
If you want more proof of how dangerous trench work can be without safety devices such as shoring or harnesses, here are some videos that show firsthand the incidents that can happen.
The first video was actually taken by an OSHA investigator who happened on a work site where a worker was in a trench with no shoring. As the OSHA investigator was filming it, the trench caved in. Luckily the worker was able to escape injury.
The other videos show news reports from various locations of trenching accidents caused by a lack of safety devices at the job sites.