By: Jonathan Davidson

Typically as regulations, best practices, research, and technology continue to grow concerning a category of accidents the overall frequency of those accidents continually trend lower over time. However, this has not been the case for trenching accidents. In fact, data clearly shows that over the past 6 years the number of trenching and excavation related fatalities and injuries has been steadily rising in this country. Given that essentially 100% of trench-related accidents are preventable, that the OSHA Subpart P regulations have been law for around 30 years, and that protective systems technology has continually improved it raises the question of “Why?”

Reasons for the Increasing Number of Trench-related Accidents

Some of the reasons these types of accidents continue to happen, and are now occurring more often than what we experienced 7-10 years ago, include:

  • Lack of knowledge and proper training for employees, supervisors, and management
  • Not having a “competent person” on-site per OSHA Subpart P guidelines
  • Lack of adequate supervision
  • Poor planning of the job or tasks being performed
  • Complacency, especially in trenches between 4’-6’ deep, where the majority of accidents occur
  • Not budgeting for safety (i.e. adequate protective measures cost time and money)
  • Generational turnover in the U.S. workforce = less experienced workers
  • Morale hazard – “That’s what we have insurance for, accidents.”
  • Poor leadership and/or company culture. Task Completion > Safety

Trench Safety and Prevention Measures

Obviously, addressing many of these leadership, training and company culture related issues listed above is a great place to start when it comes to trench-related accident prevention. In addition, there are many more specific actions we MUST take when working in trenches. Some highlights of these specifically required actions, including some that are often overlooked, include:

  • Employers must ensure that a competent person, as described in 1926.650(b), is on-site while work is being performed and that they complete all of their required competent person duties. These include, but are not limited to, daily and periodic inspections of the trench, deciding on protective methods to be used, and verifying that everything has been set up or installed correctly.
  • Employees MUST be protected from cave-ins while working in a trench that is 5 feet or greater in depth using one or more of the protection system methods described in 1926.652(b) or 1926.652(c).
    • NOTE: When working in trenches less than 5 feet, it is a judgement call by the competent person whether or not a protection system should be used. The competent person must definitively decide, based on their knowledge, training and/or experience whether or not there is a potential for a cave-in.
  • Atmospheric testing must be performed prior to entry for trenches 4 feet or greater in depth.
  • Adequate access/egress must be provided in trenches 4 feet or greater in depth.
  • Always be sure to perform 811 / one-call prior to digging and obey tolerance zones.

Trench safety is as significant of an issue now as it has ever been. Following all guidelines and implementing effective operating procedures and training programs is essential to ensuring each employee returns home safely.


Jonathan Davidson is the Regional Safety Manager – South for eRisk Solutions.