Excavation and trench-related fatalities in 2016 were nearly twice the average of the previous five years, making evacuation and trenching operations one of the most dangerous in the construction industry, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Trench collapses or cave-ins pose the greatest risk to these workers, as one cubic yard of dirt can weigh as much as a Honda Civic.
“Trench deaths have more than doubled nationwide since last year – an alarming and unacceptable trend that must be halted,” says Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). “There is no excuse. These fatalities are completely preventable by complying with OSHA standards that every construction contractor should know.”
According to OSHA, excavations are man-made cuts, cavities, trenches or depressions in the earth’s surface formed by earth removal. Trenches are narrow underground excavations that are deeper than wide and no wider than 15 feet. Since the space in trenches is more confined and trench walls are generally steeper, the hazards are generally higher in trenches. Cave-ins or collapses are the single biggest hazard in these operations. Other risks include falls, falling loads, hazardous atmospheres, and encounters with mobile equipment.
“An unprotected trench is an early grave,” OSHA says.
Shane Hedmond, a construction professional, writing for Construction Junkie, agrees that excavation and trench deaths are preventable. He says the reason why they continue to happen year after year is due to “Ignorance to safety rules, lack of supervision, pressures of time and money, and sometimes, outright laziness,” he writes. “I’ve been on too many jobsites in my relatively young career that have extremely poor procedures for working in trenches and I’ve gotten every excuse in the book.”
To help curb this trend in excavation and trench-related deaths, the U.S. Department of Labor said it has set a goal to reduce the total number of these fatalities by 10 percent by Sept. 30, 2019, for the fiscal year 2017. OSHA will spearhead this effort through inspections and by offering compliance assistance. The administration will also be issuing citations and levying stiff fines against contractors that expose workers to trench and excavation hazards. OSHA also plans to raise awareness of trenching hazards in construction, educate employers and workers on safe cave-in prevention solutions, and decrease the number of trench collapses.