Excavation and Trenching: OSHA Introduces New Safety Guide

OSHA Excavation and Trenching

Without a plan, gravity plus time equals tragedy in the trenches. Listed among the most hazardous activities on the job site, providing a safe working environment consists of much more than just digging, throwing in a box, and hoping for the best. But just how quickly can poor planning turn into tragedy? Take a minute to watch a video of an excavation gone wrong shows a collapse during the middle of an OSHA inspection.

With each cubic yard of soil weighing as much as a car, and a cubic yard of sand, gravel, or stone weighing even more, cave-ins are much more likely than many excavation activities to turn a trench into an early grave.

OSHA Trenching and Excavation Guide

To address the dangers of excavation and trenching, and to highlight ways to protect workers, OSHA recently released a Trenching and Excavation Safety guide, providing advice on following standards in excavation and keeping workers safe.

In this guide, OSHA provided a plethora of information for those digging trenches, including the following:

  • Excavations vs. Trenches: An excavation is any man-made cut, cavity, trench, or depression, while a trench is a narrow excavation longer than it is wide measuring no more than 15 feet deep.
  • Dangers of Trenching Operations: In addition to the cave-in, workers are exposed to falling loads, hazardous atmospheres, and hazards from mobile equipment.
  • Soil Classifications: Understanding the difference in compressive strength and stability between rock, type A soil, type B soil, and type C soil.
  • What Constitutes a ‘competent person’: A competent person is an individual, designated by the employer, who is capable of identifying existing and predictable hazards in the surroundings or working conditions which are unsanitary, hazardous or dangerous to workers, and who is authorized to take prompt corrective measures to eliminate them. Tasks performed include: Soil Classification, Protective System Inspection, Structural Ramp Design, Water Removal Equipment Monitoring, and Site Inspection.
  • Preplanning Factors: No excavation or trenching project is exactly the same, and employers must approach each new job with proper care and preparation. Proper preparation can not only protect workers (the main goal), it can reduce costs associated with the project.
  • Before You Bid: Before the planning, before the digging, employers need to take into consideration a variety of factors before making the bid. These include: Traffic, proximity to nearby structures, soil classification, surface and groundwater, weather, protective systems, fall protection and ladders, and more. By conducting proper surveys and studies before making a bid, employers can understand the equipment, personnel, and planning needs.
  • Protective Systems in Excavation: Generally, in order to protect workers from cave-ins, OSHA requires employers to
    • Slope and bench the sides of the operation,
    • Support the sides of the excavation, or
    • Place a shield between the side of the excavation and the work area.
  • Working around Utilities: Call 811 before you dig to ensure that the area is marked off and that you do not come across underground utilities while digging. Ensure that while excavating, that all underground installations will be protected, supported, or removed in order to protect workers.

To help employers and general contractors better understand the standards and recommendations, over the next few weeks, we will dig deeper into the trenching and excavation guide, highlighting information you need to protect workers.

View the entire document, embedded below, or click here to visit the OSHA Trenching and Excavation Guide.


Protecting employees—a moral and legal responsibility of an employer. With excavations an incredibly dangerous task for employers, ensuring a proper process before, during, and after completing a project is pivotal.

However, this is just one of the many aspects of the everyday life of a general contractor. Learn more about introducing a complete safety management system to your business. Optimum Safety Management can complete a 30-point evaluation of your safety management system and recommend the steps you need to take to exceed compliance, gaining efficiency, productivity, and engagement—Your Return on Safety®.

Contact us today to learn more.

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