Never mind what the movies want us to believe. Ancient curses and airplane propellers are not the worst threats to archaeologists, unless they happen to be Indiana Jones. However, archaeologists do face the real-life hazard of having to dig holes in the ground.

For many construction, utility and other workers, facing the extreme dangers of trenches and excavations is an everyday reality. Employers and site managers do not always protect workers’ fundamental right to critical, effective safety measures. When deaths and injuries occur, the only justice left to find is often in civil lawsuits and criminal convictions.

Trenching and other excavation work

OSHA calls excavating and trenching “among the most hazardous construction operations.”

What these terms mean is simple. Any work counts as “excavation” if it removes earth (dirt, rock, clay, etc.) to leave any area that is below ground level. An excavation that is narrow, and deeper than it is wide, counts as a trench (officially speaking, unless it is more than 15 feet wide).

There are plenty of ways to suffer injuries or die when working in or around these extremely common work areas. The deadliest risk is a cave-in, meaning the excavation’s walls collapsing. According to OSHA, this causes fatalities and injuries by the hundreds every year.

But other hazards happen all the time as well. Workers falling into an excavation, or things falling on top of workers (a load of building materials from a forklift, for example) are too common. Dangerous gasses are also common causes of death and severe injury.

When the federal government requires a protective system

OSHA requires that trenches:

  • At least 5 feet deep have a protection system.
  • At least 20 feet deep have a protection system designed or approved by a registered professional engineer.

Despite the many considerations that must go into choosing and designing the right protective system, the final concept tends to be simple:

  • A slope (instead of a vertical wall) angled away from the work area at the bottom of the trench.
  • Shoring that supports trench walls.
  • Shielding such as a “trench boxes” that protects works even in the event of a trench collapse.

Protective systems require a qualified expert to consider soil type and moisture, weather conditions, and the work and materials located nearby.

Trench safety gets a spot on the nation’s calendar

Just as in 2018 and 2019, this year several organizations will sponsor a national Trench Safety Stand Down. Workplaces that participate take a work break to educate and raise awareness about the great dangers of work involving trenching and excavation.

Among the sponsoring organizations are the National Association of Home Builders and the National Utility Contractors Association.