July 21, 2022

As Fatalities Rise, OSHA Targets Trenching Work

A sharp increase in worker deaths has prompted OSHA to announce “enhanced” enforcement measures and additional oversight of employers engaged in trenching and excavation work. According to OSHA, 22 workers lost their lives while engaged in trenching work during the first six months of 2022, surpassing the total of 15 deaths in all of 2021. An agency press release indicates that OSHA officials may consider criminal referrals in cases where a trenching incident results in a fatality.

Trenching and Excavation Fatalities, 2000-2022
Worker fatalities during trenching and excavation work since 2000.

Trenching fatalities in 2022 are on pace to equal the 44 deaths in 2005, the second highest number this century, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only in 2003, when 48 workers lost their lives, were trenching fatalities higher during the period 2000 through 2022 (see chart).

OSHA’s National Emphasis Program (NEP) on Trenching and Excavation (PDF), which became effective in October 2018, established a national reporting system for the agency’s trenching and excavation inspections and required agency offices to develop outreach programs. The NEP states that “OSHA has long maintained that employees exposed to potential cave-ins must be protected before the excavation face is in imminent danger of collapse, because OSHA believes that there is a potential for a collapse in virtually all excavations.”

In one recent case cited by OSHA, two workers were killed by a trench collapse in Jarrell, Texas. The trench was more than 20 feet deep. Trench shields, which could have saved the workers’ lives, were present at the site but were not used, according to OSHA.

OSHA standards require protective systems on trenches that are more than five feet deep (PDF). For trenches greater than 20 feet, the protective system must be designed by a registered professional engineer. These systems must be inspected daily by a competent person before work begins. Changing conditions also require inspections of protective systems. Trenches need to be kept free of standing water and atmospheric hazards. Soil and other material must be kept at least two feet away from the edges of a trench.

More information about health and safety issues related to trenching and excavation is available on the OSHA website.