OSHA is launching an enhanced enforcement initiative to combat a 68% increase in trench-related deaths in the first half of 2022.
The agency says that 22 workers have died in trenching and excavation work in the first six months of 2022, surpassing the 15 trench-related fatalities that occurred in all of 2021.
Protective systems, pre-work inspections required
Trenching and excavation operations require protective systems and inspections before workers can enter and if those protections are inadequate or missing it can expose workers to “serious hazards, including the risk of being buried under thousands of pounds of soil.” One cubic yard of soil can weigh as much as 3,000 pounds.
OSHA trenching standards require protective systems on trenches deeper than 5 feet and soil and other materials kept at least 2 feet from the edge of an excavation. Trenches must also be inspected by a knowledgeable person, be free of standing water and atmospheric hazards and have a safe means of entering and exiting prior to allowing a worker to enter.
Recent incident that killed 2 spurred stronger enforcement
A recent incident in central Texas is what spurred OSHA to take action, with two workers suffering fatal injuries on June 28, 2022, when an unprotected trench that was 20 feet deep collapsed on them as they worked. Trench shields, which could have saved their lives, sat unused nearby the excavation.
OSHA has a pre-existing National Emphasis Program on Trenching and Excavation, which began in 2018, and this will continue to see compliance officers performing more than 1,000 trench inspections nationwide where they can stop and inspect any excavation site while carrying out their regular duties.
Criminal referrals will be considered
As part of the enhanced enforcement efforts, OSHA will “consider every available tool at the agency’s disposal” which will place additional emphasis on how agency officials evaluate penalties for trenching-related incidents.
According to OSHA, this includes “criminal referrals for federal or state prosecution to hold employers and others accountable when their actions or inactions kill workers or put their lives at risk.”
OSHA “is calling on all employers engaged in trenching and excavation activities to act immediately to ensure that required protections are fully in place every single time their employees step down into or work near a trench,” Doug Parker, Assistant Secretary for OSHA said. “The alarming increase in the number of workers needlessly dying and suffering serious injuries in trenching incidents must be stopped.
“Every one of these tragedies could have been prevented had employers complied with OSHA standards,” Parker continued. “There simply is no excuse for ignoring safety requirements to prevent trench collapses and cave-ins, and leaving families, friends and co-workers to grieve when the solutions are so well-understood.”
States that have their own OSHA plans have similar trench-related emphasis programs in place, and the federal agency is encouraging them to consider additional measures as well, including criminal referrals for trenching incidents.
Outreach available, more info online
OSHA will conduct outreach programs in all 10 regions that it covers to help any employer who requests assistance on compliance with the agency’s trenching and excavation standards.
More information can be found on OSHA’s trenching and excavation webpage.