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Trenching Deaths Prompt OSHA to Act

03 February, 2023

It only takes a moment for 3,000 pounds of dirt to fall on an unsuspecting trench worker. On average, there are two workers each month who are killed by trench work hazards. OSHA wants to increase vigilance on work site safety regarding trenches as well as strengthen the use of protective measures.


Dirt slowly began to slide down from the bank of a trench. Curtis Zanussi said that's when he knew he needed to get out of there, but it was too late. Without ever seeing it, the whole wall of the trench came down on his back and right side, with the impact pinning him against the other side of the trench. He began to blackout. A trauma team fought for several hours to save him as he struggled to breathe and his blood pressure dropped. He was bleeding internally. While Zanussi was fortunate to survive, even after a 10-day induced coma, there are about two trench workers each month who are not so lucky. Trench work is a serious task that has serious consequences when workers do not follow proper procedures.

Trenching Safety Push

Excavation and trench related fatalities in 2016 were nearly double the average of the previous five years, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. It is this increase that is prompting OSHA to increase awareness of trenching hazards in construction, educate workers on cave-in prevention solutions, and decrease the number of trench collapses. Many injuries result from cave-ins and fall hazards, so it is important to follow OSHA (29 CFR 1926 subpart P) protocol on excavation safety. Methods of shoring are simple and relatively inexpensive, whether dropping in a steel box or using plywood and beams in between. Besides Zanussi's incident, there are more that occur often and are preventable. An investigation earlier this year shows no shoring was in use when a Michigan father of two was killed while in a trench to cap water and sewer lines. The trench was about 18 feet long and 4 feet wide at the top, and it was at least 10 feet deep when the soil collapsed on the man. It is situations such as this that are prompting OSHA to also work with other industry associations and public utility companies to improve safety efforts.

It's a better economy, which in turn, creates more opportunities for construction, said Nick DeJesse, an OSHA Assistant Regional Administrator in Pennsylvania. "When there is more construction, there is an increase for injuries, and it is important to do everything to prevent them," he said. Some of the hazards workers can face during trenching or excavating operations are from, but not limited to, cave-ins, falls into the trench, flooding, equipment or loads falling on workers, chemical fumes. 

"An unprotected trench is an early grave," OSHA said in a press release. "Do not enter an unprotected trench." Workers should use a protective system for trenches 5 feet deep or more. For excavation in stable rock or less than 5 feet deep, OSHA (29 CFR 1926.651 and 1926.652) says a "competent person" can determine if a protection system is required for safe operations. However, just a cubic yard of soil can weigh as much as 3,000 pounds.

Trenching Resources

Construction workers and others involved in excavation and trench work can share professional tips for efficiency and safety at the National Utility Contractors Association's (NUCA) Trench Safety Stand Down held in June each year. Focus on increasing safety in trench and excavation using educational resources to inform workers and boost training. Reinforce the importance of using trench protective systems and protecting workers from trenching hazards. Comply with OSHA and ANSI safety sign standards and apply premade construction signs and labels anywhere on the job site to reinforce safe practices.