OSHA is Getting Serious About Trench SafetyAug 31, 2022
Noting an “alarming” increase in trench fatalities, OSHA has warned employers to prepare for trenching inspections.
During the first six months of 2022, OSHA has investigated 22 deaths resulting from trenching and excavation hazards. That number dramatically exceeds the number of fatalities for the previous year and reflects a 68 percent increase over 2021.
In response, the agency has launched an enhanced enforcement initiative and committed to performing at least 1,000 trench inspections over the coming months. In the press release announcing this initiative, Assistant Secretary for Occupational Health and Safety, Doug Parker, said that the agency 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… The alarming increase in the number of workers needlessly dying and suffering serious injuries in trenching incidents must be stopped.”
Trenching Standards and Guidance
Existing OSHA standards for trenching and excavation require that protective systems be installed on any trench deeper than five feet — with soil and other materials kept at least two feet from the edge of a trench. Trenches 20 feet deep or more require a protective system designed by a registered professional engineer.
OSHA last updated its National Emphasis Program (NEP) on Trenching and Excavation in 2018. One of the critical aspects of the 2018 update was creating a national reporting system for all trenching and excavation inspections.
Be on Guard
In the announcement about the new enforcement initiative, OSHA issued a clear warning to all employers involved in trenching and excavation activities.
To stress the dangers of disregarding federal workplace safety requirements for trenching and excavation work, OSHA enforcement staff will consider every available tool at the agency’s disposal. These actions will emphasize how agency officials evaluate penalties for trenching and excavation-related incidents, including 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.
Be vigilant. The agency intends to levy higher penalties for infractions — and initiate criminal prosecutions when necessary — in the months ahead. While OSHA’s maximum penalties are set by law, the agency has case-by-case discretion in how those penalties are assessed (i.e., it’s not always the maximum). The agency also has discretion about how many citations might be issued on a multi-employer worksite and whether penalties are “serious” or “willful.”
Assistance is Available
Numerous resources are available to employers to help them comply with trenching safety requirements. OSHA has its On-Site Consultation Program for small and medium-sized employers with questions. The free program provides employers with direct assistance in developing a strategic trench and excavation safety program. Assistant Secretary Parker said the agency will “conduct outreach programs, including safety summits in all of our ten regions.” OSHA has also joined with national industry groups — like the National Utility Contractors Association (NUCA) and Associated General Contractors of America, to educate thousands of workers about trench safety.
If you have questions about your trench and excavation safety program — or have received a citation for any reason – don’t hesitate to call Orr and Reno for assistance.
About the Author: James Laboe