August 2018 Vol. 73 No. 8


Taking the High Ground to Ensure Underground Safety

Working the right way means working the safe way. That combination leads to keeping your team, budget and timeline protected. This is especially true in underground municipal and commercial infrastructure projects that involve building structures or installing pipe in trenches and excavation – particularly in utility, water and sewer construction jobs.

Trench and excavation are among the most hazardous construction jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, trench and excavation-related fatalities in 2016 were nearly double the average of the previous five years. Responding to this trend, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has established an Agency Priority Goal for 2018 to reduce these hazards by 10 percent through inspections and compliance assistance at workplaces.

Complying with OSHA’s trench safety standards and maintaining constant awareness of the hazards can prevent deaths and injuries. There are several essential safety tips for trench work.

Learn, review OSHA standards

OSHA specifies safety standards for protecting workers from cave-ins. Because trench construction involves many complex factors, these standards cover requirements for sloping, benching, shielding and shoring, as well as soil analysis and protective system guidelines for installing and removing support systems. Workers and managers alike should learn these standards and review them regularly.

Follow a written company policy

On an executive level, companies should have a detailed policy that outlines safe trench and excavation practices. This policy should underscore the need for proper planning and supervision, require frequent inspections of excavation sites to detect any change in soil conditions, and ensure adequate support for trenches. A good policy will thoroughly outline responsibilities and standardize safe practices for employees.

Commit to training

The challenges of job-site safety and productivity are something contractors face every day. Lectures with minimal classroom engagement are not enough. Companies need to look to dedicated resources that offer quality safety training, along with support outside the classroom — like job-site consultation, engineered designs and safety equipment. Courses such as excavation safety for competent person instruction, confined space entry training, fall protection, site-specific regulatory compliance and operator certifications for equipment can truly support a contractor’s capability to maintain worker safety while also boosting project productivity.

Identify competent person

Compliance with OSHA standards requires the selection of a competent individual to inspect trenches and identify potential hazards. Inspections must cover every aspect of excavation, safety and shoring equipment, and details such as soil type, work in adjacent areas, the possibility of vibrations and weather conditions. Pre-work hazard inspections also include ensuring that workers have the appropriate protective equipment. Competency means the ability to identify existing and potential hazards in the surrounding area or dangerous working conditions. This individual must have the authority to remove employees from dangerous areas and to deploy corrective measures, if necessary.

Choose the right protective system

Safety training, knowledge, experience and subject matter resources are where productivity and safety have worked hand-in-hand to evolve safety in our industry. Between manufactured systems using tabulated data and site-specific engineered solutions using shields, shoring, bracing and high-arch clearance spreaders, equipment has progressed dramatically. With larger projects and complexity of infrastructures in growing populations, contractors can face the challenge of today’s job site with a greater range of options to manage project quality, production and worker safety equally. These include the use of lighter-duty shields with high-arch clearance cut-outs and guide framers, along with larger-capacity hydraulic bracing. It’s important for contractors who work in underground operations to consider resources that can support every phase of worker safety between classroom training, pre-bid analysis on protective system solutions, on-site consultation and engineering designs that can be applied successfully on every project

Take the higher ground

Projects are becoming more complex. With increased spending on vertical markets, such as infrastructure and mid-stream oil and gas distribution, safely working below ground is even more important. Safety in excavations and trenches requires an effective training program, adoption by employees at all levels, and partnerships to assist when outside the typical scope a contractor performs in and selecting the proper protective system for every soil type, application and project site conditions. With the right program in place, contractors can provide a safe workplace for all employees and be very productive, keeping projects on time and on budget.

About the Author:
Todd Hayes was named vice president of the Trench Safety Region at United Rentals in 2012, after joining the company in 1999 as part of the Shoring and Supply acquisition. He has over 20 years of progressively responsible experience in the construction equipment industry, including 16 years in the trench safety business.

United Rentals, (844) 873-4948,

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