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Alarming Trench Survey Highlights Risks for Workers and Employers

OSHA’s decades-old trenching and excavation standard requires trenches to be shored, sloped or benched. It also requires employers to determine the potential for cave-ins and assess the need for shoring or other protective systems before allowing anyone to begin work in trench projects.

LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni

“Despite these standards being in place, every few weeks, we see headlines about construction workers being killed in trench collapses,” says LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni. “In the majority of these incidents, this tragic loss of life could have been avoided. The site assessment and training that needs to take place before work begins, as well as the methods to prevent fatal collapses throughout the project, are clear and straightforward.”

After trench-related deaths tripled between 2011 and 2016, OSHA instituted a National Emphasis Program to reduce the number of trench fatalities in construction. To take a closer look at the rise in trench fatalities and find solutions, the CPWR – The Center for Construction Research and Training – commissioned a study. Here are the results:

  • When construction demand increased following the last recession, many new companies entered the field. Some of these employers may not have the experience and skills to do the work safely. Trench work has a low barrier to entry since it only requires a modest skill set and most of the necessary equipment is rented.
  • Most fatalities occurred on small residential water and sewer repair jobs. These are short-term jobs that often take a day or less. These types of projects tend to fly under OSHA’s enforcement radar.
  • Of the OSHA citations analyzed over this period, only one-third were willful citations (i.e., a purposeful disregard of the standard), although anyone in this business would know the requirements to protect workers in trenches.

In addition to the study, the CPWR also surveyed employers, including foremen and supervisors, workers, safety and health professionals, trainers and other construction stakeholders about trench safety. The results, which were reported at the National Safety Council’s 2019 Congress, showed the following:

  • About 75 percent of respondents said they see no trench protection in place “Frequently” or “Occasionally.”
  • Only 1 in 4 respondents said there was “Always” sufficient pre-planning for trench work. About 1 in 3 said sufficient pre-planning happened “Occasionally.”
  • Only 37 percent of those surveyed said there was “Always” a competent person on site. Having a designated competent person on site is a major requirement of OSHA’s trench standard.
  • About half of those surveyed have refused to enter an unsafe trench at some point during their career.
  • One third of those surveyed said they have witnessed, been involved in or inspected a trench collapse.
  • Many of those surveyed admitted to having an inadequate understanding of the OSHA standard’s requirements, particularly the section on sloping/benching.
  • Lack of training, the production schedule and an “It won’t happen on my watch” attitude were overwhelmingly cited as the biggest contributing factors for trench incidents.
  • A majority of those surveyed believe that increased penalties (including criminal sanctions), more frequent inspections, renewal training for competent persons and permitting requirements could all have a positive impact on compliance and safety.

These results highlight a need for more pre-planning before work begins and additional training for workers and supervisors surrounding OSHA’s trenching and excavation standard and the risks present in unprotected trenches. Based on the number of workers who have refused to enter a trench or seen a trench collapse, the hazards are very real. Companies digging trenches simply must do it properly and have the trained personnel to do it right, including a competent person to ensure it is done safely.

For more information about performing trench work safely, order the Fund’s Safety in the Trenches pocket guide by going to and clicking on Publications.

[Scott Schneider]

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