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Ensuring safety in the trenches

Those experienced in construction and excavation work know the dangers of trenches, but it's all too common to hear of collapses and injuries, even deaths on the job. It's one of the most dangerous parts of construction work and, even in a rescue situation, injuries are serious -- as with a recent Maryland accident.

The general purpose behind OSHA is to provide a safe workplace, whether that means in a mine or behind a desk, in an airplane or operating a forklift. Each job comes with unique challenges, settings and dangers, but across the board an employer needs a workplace that is as safe as can possibly be. Trenches are manmade structures and whenever you're asked to work under the surface, the right support and education should be provided.

Job related trenches

The most basic definition of a trench is depression in the ground where it is deeper than it is wide. This shape puts extra force on the walls that surround a worker and it's important to reinforce and prep the work area before beginning a job.

Trenches are common in construction or sewage work: for example, when a worker must dig below the surface to fix a structural issue. OSHA notes that trenches are among the most dangerous construction settings.

Common trench injuries include:

  • Cave-ins
  • Slips and falls
  • Hazardous or polluted work environments
  • Accidents or collisions with vehicles and other mobile equipment

Making trenches safe

Trenches are naturally dangerous environments. The laws of physics mean that gravity and pressure can cause cave-ins at any moment and narrow passageways trap unhealthy gasses. A natural trench may also contain rock, rough edges and hazards more likely to injure a worker when inside.

Though they come with dangers, employers and workers can greatly improve safety by following the right procedures. Installing support systems, keeping unneeded equipment away from the site and testing air conditions will greatly increase safety. Providing education on specific conditions also creates a safer work environment.

When employers fail

Beyond OSHA's general mission to create a safe workplace, employers have specific requirements when it comes to trenches and excavations. Trenches are always to be taken seriously, even if it's a routine and daily task for a seasoned professional.

Sometimes a job looks like it can be fast and easy and employers or employees take shortcuts. One slip-up can have fatal consequences so it's important to make sure that boxes are in place before anyone descends into the hole.

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