Excavation and Trench Safety

Learn how to maintain the safety of workers and sustain uninterrupted work around excavations and trenches

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Published December 7th, 2020

What is Excavation Safety?

Excavation safety is a combination of safety precautions and mitigations in and around excavations and trenches to eliminate or control hazards in compliance with industry standards and regulations.

Why is Excavation and Trench Safety Important?

Excavation and trenching are amongst the most dangerous operations in the construction industry. Dangers can include cave-ins, falling loads, hazardous atmospheres, and hazards from using heavy equipment. Regular pre-work inspections can reduce hazards and serious risk of injury. Safety inspections should check for the type of excavation being conducted, support and warning systems in place, access areas, weather conditions, heavy equipment, and PPE.

In this article we will briefly discuss the following:

Excavation Hazards

“As any man-made cut, cavity, trench, or depression in the Earth’s surface formed by earth removal,” according to OHSA’s definition, excavations involve many hazards. Here are some of the dangers brought by excavations:

  • The collapse of the sides of the excavation.
  • Materials falling onto people
  • Falls, either people or vehicles.
  • Nearby structures collapsing into the excavation.
  • Electrocution, explosion, gas leak, or flooding, caused by damage to underground services.

Excavation Precautions

Collapsing should be avoided by supporting the sides by either battering them or supporting them with sheets. Materials from the excavation should be stored at a safe distance from the excavation, this will help reduce the risk of them falling onto people. Adding barriers to excavation is an essential precaution to avoid people falling into the excavation. It is safer if vehicles are kept completely out of the excavation area but if required the use of barriers and stop-blocks should help mitigate that danger.

Cable, pipe, and service plans should be used to ensure that underground services are known so they can be marked on the ground or, ideally, the area avoided entirely. Around the areas where there are underground services, mechanical equipment should be avoided and instead use spades and/or shovels. Picks and forks should be avoided as they are more likely to pierce cables and pipes. Flooding can be avoided by ensuring that there is appropriate pumping equipment so that any water that seeps into the excavation can be easily pumped out to a safe area.

Excavation Protection

OSHA requires employers to implement protective measures for the safety of employees before they can work on and near excavations. Here are some examples of excavation protection:

  • Structural ramps – whether for the exclusive use of employees or of equipment around excavations, structural ramps must be built according to the design of a competent person.
  • High-visibility vests – employees who are not only working around excavations but are also exposed to public traffic must wear high-visibility vests or clothing with similar reflective material.
  • Warning signs – mobile equipment operators who do not have easy visibility of the edge of excavations should be able to see warning signs such as barricades which will indicate proximity to excavations.
  • Testing – the condition of the atmosphere in and around excavations must be tested to ensure that it is safe even before employees are allowed to work at the site.
  • Emergency equipment – equipment such as stretchers, harness, etc. should be available in case of an emergency.
  • Regular inspections – Inspections conducted daily by designated competent persons can help reinforce excavation safety protection implemented for employees. Inspections conducted before shift starts can proactively catch and address safety issues.

10 Excavation Safety Tips

To protect workers from injuries and fatalities, preventive measures should be implemented when workers begin excavating. According to OSHA, general safety measures to follow should cover the following:

  1. Inspect trenches daily before work begins. Don’t go near an unprotected trench.
  2. Check weather conditions before work, be mindful of rain and storms.
  3. Keep heavy equipment away from trench edges.
  4. Be mindful of the location of utilities underground.
  5. Always wear proper protective equipment.
  6. Don’t work beneath raised loads.
  7. Conduct atmosphere tests. If low oxygen and toxic gases were detected, workers must not enter the trench.
  8. Protective systems like benching, sloping, shoring and shielding must be created.
  9. Planning and implementation of safety measures must be done by a competent person.
  10. Use a checklist to perform regular self-inspections – download free excavation safety checklists here.

Excavation Risk Assessments with iAuditor

A regular excavation risk assessment can help improve excavation safety in the workplace. iAuditor by SafetyCulture is a mobile-ready app that helps ensure safety protocols were followed by employees before commencing excavation works. With iAuditor, a competent person can perform excavation risk assessment anytime, anywhere, on any mobile device — even when offline. They can capture photo evidence of noncompliance with excavation safety protocols and generate excavation risk assessment reports instantly with a tap of a finger. They can easily share, access, and review these reports as it is automatically stored in a cloud.


Carlo Sheen Escano

SafetyCulture staff writer

Carlo Sheen Escano is a contributing writer for SafetyCulture based in Makati City, Philippines. Sheen has experience in digital marketing and has been writing for SafetyCulture since 2018. His articles mainly discuss risks in the workplace and well-known safety and quality processes used to mitigate them. Furthermore, Sheen is passionate about providing insights to global customers on how technology can help them to do the best work of their lives.