The Hazards of Trenching and Excavation Work

Although many home construction projects require trenching and/or excavating, these tasks can be dangerous for non-professionals to complete on their own. Unfortunately, deaths and serious injuries from trenching and excavating are on the rise even among those who work in the construction industry.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), 36 people died in an excavating or trenching cave-in accident in 2016. That number was the highest for the five-year reporting period beginning in 2011. Hundreds more sustain serious injuries every year such as paralysis or traumatic brain injury. With the risk of death or injury so high, it’s critical that anyone involved in trenching or excavating understand the dangers.

Defining the Terms Trenching and Excavating

According to OSHA, excavating involves any type of cavity, cut, depression, or trench created by a human. A trench is a type of narrow excavation that typically creates greater depth than width. The maximum width of a trench is 15 feet. When OSHA and individual construction companies create safety standards around trench work, they rely on how deep the trench goes. What these definitions boil down to is that every trench is a type of excavation but not all excavations are trenches.

Common Types of Accidents with Trenching and Excavation Work

Cave-ins are the most common cause when a serious injury or fatality occurs during trenching. Typical reasons for a cave-in include:

  • Falling of loose soil caused by traffic near the construction area or vibrations from the equipment used to create the trench.
  • Water that loosens the sides of the trench.
  • Placing heavy equipment too close to the trench’s edge.
  • Overly sandy soil that doesn’t hold together well.

Falling or having an object strike the person excavating or trenching are another leading cause of fatalities and injuries. Construction workers or homeowners can fall into the trench as well as become buried under a falling load.

Electrocution that occurs when hitting underground power lines can cause instant death if the workers don’t check the status of utility lines first. Most communities have an 8-1-1 telephone number established just for this purpose. Upon calling 8-1-1, the city will send out a crew to mark the location of underground power lines. Additionally, many states make the practice of digging without marking the ground first illegal.

Exposure to low oxygen levels, toxic fumes, and chemicals is yet another reason why excavation and trenching can be such dangerous activities. This is why OSHA requires testing for these issues for any excavation deeper than four feet. Finally, accidents involving other vehicles such as backhoes and dump trucks are all too common on construction sites and among private homeowners.

Stay Safe and Leave the Job to the Professionals

Professional construction workers must complete a minimum level of education, on-the-job training, and continuing education in addition to learn and abide by all OSHA safety standards. If workers with this type of background can still have accidents while excavating or trenching, homeowners who have no experience doing either should seriously consider hiring out for the job. Professionals can complete the job faster, more efficiently, and with greater attention to detail than anyone could accomplish with a do-it-yourself project.