No contractor wants to make headlines because of a trench collapse. When a collapse results in the death of a laborer? That’s tragic, and the resulting fines and lawsuits could be enough to put even large contractors out of business.
But it doesn’t take a fatality for contractors to suffer a serious hit on their bottom lines. Those contractors who don’t take the proper safety precautions when tackling underground work can get hit with hundreds of thousands of dollars of fines for violating federal safety rules.
Take the case of excavating company Mark Mashuda Excavating in Evans City, PA. The company was fined $147,000 in October 2015 as the result of an accident at a work site last year. An employee was trapped 10 feet in the ground after a trench collapse in late March while the excavation company was installing sanitary sewer lines. It took rescue personnel three hours to dig the man out. Fortunately, the man, though he was trapped waist-deep, was not seriously injured.
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That didn’t stop OSHA from issuing three citations against the company. OSHA says that two of the citations were for willful violations.
“This trench collapse never should have happened,” says Christopher Robinson, director of OSHA’s Pittsburgh office in a press release. “It is completely inexcusable for an excavation contractor not to provide cave-in protection for all employees working in trenches.”
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Tom Hartman, senior vice president of strategic alliances with National Trench Safety LLC in Houston, TX, says that he’s not surprised by the large fines, or by any of the hefty punishments that contractors face when OSHA rules that the trenches they dig pose a safety risk to their workers.
He’s also not surprised that so many contractors today are investing more time in making sure that their underground work sites are safe. Contractors don’t want to see cave-ins at their sites. And they definitely don’t want any serious injuries on these sites.
They don’t want to suffer heavy fines, either, says Hartman. And today it’s more difficult for contractors who do violate federal safety measures to escape the notice of OSHA, he says.
“You have to understand the nature of the trenching and excavation industry,” says Hartman. “Workers are out in the open, quite often in public spaces. They are easy pickings. When you are a private industry, operating a plant or a business, the OSHA people have to knock on your front gate and ask to come in. When you are laying pipe in the middle of the street, they can drive by and walk right up.”
This increased scrutiny, and the intense focus on safety that the best contractors have today, is actually a good thing for companies that specialize in underground work, says Hartman.
“The fines and potential risks of not being aware of worker safety are so high, they can put you out of business,” says Hartman. “It’s the rare contractors who haven’t taken it upon themselves to learn the regulations. A willful violation is the worst type. That’s a contractor who knows of a danger and chooses to ignore it. That can’t happen. Working safe is no longer just an option. It is a requirement. Trench work can be very dangerous work, but it doesn’t have to be, not for contractors who follow the safety requirements.”
Want to protect your company from fines? Want to keep your workers as safe as possible? Then it’s time to focus intently on trench safety. If you don’t, you could be putting your company and your employees at risk.
Credit: Efficiency Production
Efficiency Production’s trench and shoring project
The Importance of the Competent Person
OSHA officials have long recognized the potential danger that employees face when doing trenching or excavation work. That’s why OSHA requires that a competent person be on site when construction crews are doing this kind of work.
According to the OSHA Construction Standard, a work site’s competent person must be capable of identifying existing and predictable hazards on job sites; must be able to identify working conditions that are unsanitary, hazardous, or dangerous to workers; and, importantly, must have the authority to take the measures necessary to correct these dangerous conditions. That includes having the authority to shut down work until steps are taken to boost the safety of a job site.
Several manufacturers of trench shoring products provide training classes to help contractors meet these federal requirements. This includes National Trench Safety, which offers a variety of training classes for contractors and workers who are doing excavation work, including the standard training needed for a contractor to certify a competent person. National Trench Safety also offers specialized classes, such as those focusing on the steps contractors must take to work safely in confined spaces.
A contractor taking National Trench Safety’s courses would be able to identify and test soil types to help choose the best safety system for a particular job. This contractor would also learn which safety systems—from hydraulic shoring to trench shields—are best for which jobs.
“Most contractors are finding it to their advantage that their key personnel at a minimum have a good understanding of all the regulations to avoid very expensive fines and/or criminal prosecution,” says Hartman. “Contractors have pretty much determined that safety is a priority. Even the entry-levelemployee—before being put to work—should have a basic understanding of the rules and regulations and the potential hazards in the business.”
Hartman says that the construction business has changed for the better when it comes to safety. Federal regulations say that every job site featuring excavation and trench work needs at least one person onsite who is certified as a competent person. But many contractors are going further, providing safety training for all of their employees who work in the field.
“The thought is that the newest person on the job should have at least the same basic understanding of the hazards involved in underground work as the most experienced superintendent,” says Hartman.
Pro-Tec installing shoring
Mitch Post, training and development supervisor with Elkridge, MD-based Mabey, says that he, too, has noticed an increased focus on safety among contractors today. Mabey, too, offers training classes to contractors who want to meet the federal regulations necessary to take on excavation and trenching work.
The company even runs its own mock job sites in controlled conditions. Post says that this gives contractors the chance to learn the hazards of underground work without putting themselves in real danger.
“Before they get out in the real word and do it for real out there, this gives contractors the opportunity to come in and learn about soil types and learn about shoring,” says Post. “We feel that learning this way is a lot safer, especially for new companies coming into the business that are trying to learn on the fly. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to excavation work, and we think that learning that in controlled conditions is the best approach.”
Like others in the shoring business, Post says that contractors should sign up for as much training for themselves and their employees as possible. That includes providing training not just for one competent person but for all employees who are going to take on potentially hazardous excavation work, he says.
Employees who have received safety training will be better equipped to react properly when challenges do come up on an excavation job, he says.
“There is no such thing as a job that goes according to plan,” says Post. “If you are better prepared, you put yourself in a better situation. It is better to get that knowledge before you get out there on the job site.”
Contractors are even willing today to take safety measures that could result in a slowdown on their job sites, says Post. He points to contractors who usually take on utility jobs. There are times when such contractors have to dig underground. If they have little or no experience in this type of work, many will shut down their sites and sign up for excavation training with Mabey, says Post.
They’ll then spend a day on training before re-opening their sites the following day, says Post. Yes, this does add extra time to a job. But this training break might also be the difference between a smooth excavation job and a serious accident, says Post.
“They’ll come here for a day to learn about safety measures,” says Post. “It’s a huge opportunity for them to keep their crews safe. We do quite a bit of this type of training throughout the year.”
There are many reasons why contractors are more focused on safety, says Post. One of the big ones? The economic downturn of 2008.
During these rough economic times, many of the sloppier, fly-by-night contractors went out of business. They could no longer find enough jobs once the economy became tighter. The companies that survived the country’s long financial slump? They were the stronger ones.
They also happened to be those with a stronger focus on keeping their employees safe.
“So many of the companies that weren’t conscious of safety have gone away,” says Post. “They were sloppy when it came to safety, but they were sloppy in other ways, too. The companies that survived were good when it came to safety—and good, in general, when it came to running their businesses. These companies understand that they can’t afford not to be safe. The chances of an incident being serious or fatal is very high with this kind of work. It can wipe out a company.”
Post says that the best contractors look at safety like it is a football game. To be successful, you need a game plan before you begin digging.
“Don’t show up on the job site, start digging, see the issues and then start thinking about your shoring and safety plan,” says Post.
Instead, savvy contractors study the soil types on all new job sites before their construction crews start digging. They know when underground utilities are in the area. They know where groundwater is.
“Knowing all this can save contractors a lot of headaches before they start digging, that’s for sure,” says Post.
Pro-Tec trenching and shoring project
By knowing their job sites, contractors can best determine which type of shoring equipment they need to keep their workers safe. Trench boxes, for example, are typically best for quick one-day jobs such as pipe repairs. These tools work best when workers dig their trenches, do their work quickly, and get out all in the same day, says Post.
Contractors might turn to shoring, though, when they expect to be in a trench for a longer period of time. For instance, if they need to keep a trench and pit open to set and pour concrete, shoring might be the better solution.
Trench boxes also might not be the best choice when construction crews are digging through soil that will have a lot of groundwater. Even a shallow job with a lot of groundwater might require a sheet-and-frame shoring system, says Post.
“A lot of people think that if it’s only an 8-foot-deep excavation that you won’t need shoring,” says Post. “But that’s not always the case. If you’re in coastal Florida with groundwater and shifting sand, you’ll need shoring if you want to be safe.”
Hartman says that many contractors today go beyond the federal requirement of having one competent person onsite for excavation work. In addition to this competent person, they also train all of their employees who will be working underground, says Hartman.
“When you look at the studies on cave-ins and accidents, the injuries and fatalities almost always involve the youngest and most inexperienced man on the job, the guy who just started,” says Hartman. “The secondary fatality would involve the more experienced supervisor who was attempting a rescue or retrieval. As a rule, most companies now will have all of their personnel performing the excavation work complete at least a basic eight-hour competent person class.”
The Big Decisions
The training that manufacturers offer is important. Contractors can immediately make excavation or trench work safer by choosing the right equipment for their particular job.
Armed with knowledge about soil conditions, underground utilities, and the scope of their work, contractors who have been trained in the hazards of underground work are the ones who are best equipped to make the right decisions to protect the health of their workers.
Mike Ross, national training director with Mason, MI-based Efficiency Production Inc., says that the competent person on an excavation job site generally has three choices: tell construction crews to slope the job site, shield it, or shore it.
“The basic choice between a box or a shield, really, is based on the work that is being done and the conditions at the site,” says Ross.
Ross says that the basic trench box is still a top production tool today. He says that trench boxes are designed to keep dirt out of holes while still allowing workers to dig vertical trenches.
Ross says that trench boxes are a good choice for many digging jobs. The big limitation of these tools? They don’t work if a utility is crossing a trench. If a job involves crossing a utility, contractors will have to search for different safety options, says Ross.
“A trench box is usually the most efficient option that the competent person has available,” says Ross. “It is simple, effective, and safe. It is easy to use. The one great limitation is if something is crossing the work site. By its nature, a trench box won’t let anything through it.”
But whether contractors choose trench boxes or hydraulic shoring, says Ross, most construction companies today give serious thought to protecting their workers during underground jobs.
Ross says that much of the increased focus on safety is a result of years of tighter federal regulations, and the changing habits that these rules have helped contractors develop.
“The new generation of tradespeople really do know more about maintaining safe job sites,” says Ross. “When I started out in the construction business, the guys I worked with were around before OSHA. A lot of their pre-OSHA habits carried over. They exposed me to some of their preconceived notions of what a safe job site was all about. I carried some of those things from the pre-OSHA days with me, too. But things have improved today. The newer generation has worked their entire lives around guys who have been around since safety has been become a bigger part of construction work. These newer guys have had better safety habits drilled into them since their first days in the industry.”
Still, excavation work remains dangerous. OSHA says that the fatality rate for excavation work is 112% higher than it is for general construction work. OSHA requires that all trenches and excavation sites that are 5 feet or deeper be protected against sidewall collapses with either the shoring of trench walls, sloping of the soil at a shallow angle, or with a protective trench box.
Unfortunately, some contractors still try to take shortcuts when it comes to protecting their workers. Others are unaware that their sites are unsafe.
“There are still guys out there operating without staying within the safety standards,” says Ross. “The thing that contractors need to know, though, is that efficiency and safety are tied together. People who have worked in the underground end of the business for a long time understand this. Any hole that you dig in which you contain the dirt or retain the dirt outside the hole is a very efficient and profitable hole. It also happens to be a safe one.”
In other words, all contractors should be interested in safety, not only because it is the right thing to do for their workers, but because it will make their job sites more efficient. And sites that are more efficient result in bigger profits for contractors.
So maintaining safe underground job sites is actually good business, says Ross.
“Efficient production is safe production. That is an old saying from a long time ago. It holds true all the way through today,” says Ross. “If you dig a very small hole and retain the dirt with a box or shoring, it might be your intention to make your work as cost-efficient as possible. But you are still making it safe because you are keeping the dirt out, and it’s the dirt that will kill you.”
Joe Cook, retail manager in Lansing, MI, with Pro-Tec Equipment, says that contractors must make a careful study of their job sites before deciding which type of safety equipment to use when performing excavation work.
First, of course, contractors need to determine at what depth their construction crews will be working. They’ll have to determine what machines they’ll be using on the job. The machines will have to be capable of moving the shoring equipment around, as well as installing and extracting it.
Is the job a stationary one, focused on one trench? Or will workers be digging along as they are installing pipe down a long stretch of work area?
“If they are working on a deeper pit application, we will advise them to use a more specialized system, like a slide-rail or a sheeting system,” says Cook. “A slide-rail system can solve many of the problems of a deep and tight excavation. If you have a manhole or pump station close to a road, you have to maintain that road. We push toward a slide-rail system more than a trench shoring system in those cases.”
A slide-rail system can telescope straight into the ground, says Cook. Construction crews can install such a system piece by piece, while installing a trench box system often requires bulkier equipment that is more difficult to handle, says Cook.
Contractors are fortunate in that they have plenty of shoring and safety options when performing deep excavation work, says Cook. The technology involved in underground safety has advanced significantly, he says. And this has played a major role in keeping these potentially hazardous work sites safer.
“I remember when I worked in the field, the guys would say that in the old days they made the tools out of wood and the men out of steel,” says Cook. “Today, the tools are far more advanced. It makes everything safer.”
Tools are also performing more of the work that people used to do on their own, says Cook. Construction crews rely more on mini-machines and attachments for skid-steers, for example, to tackle more of the digging and heavy labor on a construction site. This, too, has helped to make work sites safer.
“The smaller machines have played a big role in boosting safety,” says Cook. “They have reduced the intensity of the labor involved in digging trenches. They have lessened the risk of injury. So much of the work that smaller machines handle today used to be performed by the workers on the site.”