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Excavation and Trenching in Construction

A Comprehensive Study of Excavation and Trenching Safety

A Final Paper

Presented to the

Faculty of the

School of Engineering

Warren National University

In Partial Fulfillment

Of the Requirements for the Degree of

Bachelor of Science in

Safety Engineering


Gregory Alan Scott

Stacy, MN.

When the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)

(Occupational Safety, 1989) promulgated the rules governing excavations

in 1971, the United States work-force was losing over 70 workers in

trenching and excavation related fatalities each year. Since 1971, the

average number of fatalities has dropped; however, trenching and

excavation fatality numbers were still high (Excavations, 2000). A study by

the Eastern Research Group which was in line with OSHA’s statistics

showed that accidents are under reported; therefore the reported numbers

do not reflect the actual losses. By 1982 more than 80 construction

workers per year were fatally injured in excavation related accidents. From

1992- 2002, an average of 35 construction workers were killed in trench-

related injuries followed by 2003, which reported 53 trench-related

fatalities of which 71% were from cave-ins (Spike in Trench Related,

2004). These numbers show that since OSHAs regulations have taken

effect we have seen about a 33% drop in trench fatalities. Some view this

change as a positive, while others still believe any deaths are

unacceptable. The data relevant to this study was found in a number of

locations including the archives of several associations and organizations;

literature searches within these archives turned up magazines articles,

statistics, interviews and studies by those organizations. Interviews of

industry professionals, as well as personal history within the business

presented a unique study of the data. With the ongoing injuries and deaths

attributed to excavation work, little will change unless the mind set of

those working in excavations change. This is not the only problem, with an

understaffed Department of Labor; the threat of a compliance officer from

OSHA showing up on the doorstep is highly unlikely. Even with OSHAs

focus on excavations and their attempt to make the standards more user

friendly and the efforts of consultation to get the word out, little has been

accomplished in changing the culture on many sites.


Chapter 1 1

Introduction 1

Statement of the Problem 3

Importance of the Study 5

Purpose of the Study 6

Rationale of the Study 7

Overview 9

Definition of Terms 9

Chapter 2 13

Review of Related Literature 13

Chapter 3 28

Methodology 28

Research Approach 28

Data Gathering Method 28

Database of Study 29

Data Validity 30

Originality and Limitations of the Data 30

Summary of Chapter 3 31

Chapter 4 33

Data Analysis 33

Scope, Application and Definitions 36

Project Evaluation 38

Locating Existing Utilities 40

Access and Egress 43

High Visibility Warning Vests 47

Exposure to Falling Loads 49

Warning Systems 55

Air Monitoring 58

The Hazards and Controls for Water Accumulation 68

Stability of Adjacent Structures 73

Protection of Employees from Loose Rock and Soil 75

Excavation Inspections 76

Fall Protection 77

Preliminary Decisions to the Selection of Protective

Systems 78

Soil Classification 81

Protective Systems and Their Requirements 93

Chapter 5 100

Summary 100

Recommendations 101

Conclusion 103

References 105


Appendix A: Physiological Effects of Oxygen Deprivation 111

Appendix B: Hydrogen Sulfide Physiological Effects 112

Appendix C: Volume Relationships 113

Appendix D: Permeability of Different Soils 114

Appendix E: Percentage Soil Determination 115



The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, commonly

referred to as the OSH Act, was brought about by a need for control

over the rising death toll in the American workplace. According to

the National Safety Councils (NSC) accident facts, more than

14,000 workers died and more than two million others suffered

disabling injuries in the years’ immediately preceding passage of

the OSH Act (Occupational Safety and Health, 2007). Before the

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was formed

there were a number of Federal and State regulations in place to

protect a few in the workplace:

1887 Interstate Commerce Act asserted the federal

government’s right to regulate safety among firms

involved in interstate commerce.

1908 Congress passed legislation for Workers

Compensation Law for federal workers

1909 Montana passed the first compulsory Workers

Compensation Law limited to coal miners

1910 New York passed the second compulsory Workers

Compensation Laws applicable to eight dangerous

occupations, including construction

1836 Walsh- Healey Act passed requirements for a safe

workplace for employees of contractors who have

public contracts

1965 The Federal Metal and Non-Metal Mine Safety Act

1969 Contract Work Hour and Safety Act

1969 Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970

(Introduction to OSHA, 2007).

With the passage of the OSH Act and subsequent

forming of OSHA, specific hazards on the job site were

starting to be addressed. The excavation standard was near

the forefront of this development (Occupational Safety,

1989). Since excavations rated high in terms of hazardous

locations, OSHA set its eyes on putting regulations in place

early, however, the subpart in place today resembles very

little what was put in place in the beginning.

Federal safety regulations commonly are the result of

significant public outcry for legislators to change the present

course. A recent example of this began on January 2, 2006

in Sago, West Virginia. At approximately 6:30 am, an

explosion rocked the mine where 27 workers had entered

that day. Fourteen miners were able to escape while 13

were trapped deep below the surface. When the rescuers

finally reached those that were trapped, 12 were pronounced

dead at the scene with only one survivor barely clinging on

for life (Sago Mine Disaster, 2007).

The news agencies brought the story right into our

living rooms. There was much public and private debate on

what should be done. Unfortunately, these are the types of

accidents it takes to change policy. With heavy lobbying from

both sides and public opinion splashed across the headlines,

regulations would have to change. It is often difficult for

some to get over the cost of regulating businesses. With the

cost of time, equipment, materials, manpower and additional

regulations, the costs seems heavy; but when the human

cost is this high, something must change.

Statement of the Problem

When OSHA promulgated the rules governing

excavations in 1971, the United States work force was losing

over 70 workers in trenching and excavation related fatalities

each year. The initial rule under 29 CFR 1926 subpart P was

considered cumbersome by some, conflicting to regional

methods already in use and difficult to interpret by others

(Yokel and Stanevich, 1983).

In 1976, OSHA and the National Bureau of Standards

(NBS) reviewed the technical provisions of the regulations in

contrast to actual construction practices, as well as, the state

of knowledge in geotechnical and structural engineering

(Occupational Safety, 1989). The study was completed in

1980 by the NBS under the sponsorship of OSHA and the

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

(NIOSH). Upon completion of the study, five workshops were

conducted for comment on the existing language, and

proposed changes in the text of the subpart.

These workshops were sponsored by the AFL-CIO,

Associated General Contractors (AGC), the Association of

Soil and Foundation Engineers (ASFE) and the National

Utility Contractors Association (NUCA). The participants

also included manufacturing, government, various groups

and individuals who had an interest in the proposed changes

(Yokel & Stanevich, 1983). At the workshops, participants

were given an opportunity to express their professional

opinion; these were later printed and released to OSHA as

recommendations for changes to subpart P. The rules in

place today reflect the more user-friendly version

recommended by the study and the workshops.

Since 1971, the average number of fatalities has

dropped. However, trenching and excavation fatality

numbers were still high. A study by the Eastern Research

Group which was in line with OSHA’s numbers, showed that

accidents are under reported, and by 1982 more than 80

construction workers per year were fatally injured in

excavation related accidents (Occupational Safety, 1989).

From 1992- 2002, an average of 35 construction workers

were killed in trench-related injuries followed by 2003 which

reported 53 trench-related fatalities, 71% of these were from

cave-ins (Spike in Trench Fatalities Spurs Action, 2004).

These numbers show that since OSHA’s regulations have

taken effect we have seen about a 33% drop in trench

fatalities. Some view this change as a positive, while others

still believe any deaths are unacceptable.

Importance of the Study

Relative to the overall numbers of exposed workers

working in trenches and excavations, it is a very small

fraction that is seriously injured, but all of these accidents

are senseless and avoidable. If contractors initiate a solid

plan from the beginning which includes a comprehensive

health and safety program (Safety Requirements, 1998),

required training for competent persons, site evaluation,

sound engineering principals, proper soil identification and

following the OSHA regulations set forth under 29 CFR 1926

subpart P they would increase their chance for survival

exponentially (Millar, 1985). Unfortunately, statistics show

plans are not in place, training, if done, is not being followed

and few follow the regulations precisely. We have consensus

on the rules as was determined in the NBS study and in the

work shops that followed, however, due to public awareness,

lack of due diligence by federal agencies, a distrust some

have for regulations or that some contractors view their

production as a priority to the safety of their workers, we are

still losing workers every week in excavation related


Purpose of the Study

All across the United States, we find differences in

soil types, soil conditions, excavating equipment, sloping and

shielding methods and attitudes on worker safety. The

purpose of the study is to explain the excavation standard,

give examples of real life accidents which portray the

importance of understanding why the standard was

introduced, provide background information on development

of the standards as well as interpretations of the most

misunderstood rules.

In 2003, it was determined that only 67% of trench-

related deaths from injuries in construction were caused by

cave-ins leaving 33% to other sources such as falling

objects, hazardous atmospheres, electrocution, etc (Plog,

Materna, Vannoy & Gillen, 2006). This study will look at

these and other trench-related hazards and their associated


Rationale of the Study

The fundamental propose of the excavation standard

was to standardize the excavation rules across the board.

Most organizations and states wanted little or no federal

infringements or control. Early labor-unions along with the

AFL-CIO wanted to negotiate safety and health issues with

companies; however, with little or no enforcement and states

upholding the contractor’s desires to control their jobs, little

headway was made. The following excerpt was written after

the passing of the OSH Act;

“By the middle of the last decade it was apparent that the

efforts of those concerned with this problem including state

legislators, industry and its safety specialists and labor

unions had not decreased the workplace toll. Historically,

safety and health legislation had been left to the states. But

their response was uneven. A few states had adequate job

safety laws while many others either had legislation which

only covered particular industries or had devoted insufficient

resources to the situation.” (Stender, 1974, p. 641.)

With the passage of the OSH Act and the subsequent

formation of OSHA, federal rules would supersede existing

weak state laws, except for those states with strong safety

laws already in place. Section 18 of the OSH Act of 1970

encourages development of state owned and run plans.

These state plans need to meet or exceed the federal plan

which would meet the intent of the law (Occupational Safety

and Health, 2007).


This paper will introduce the various topics involved

with excavation and trenching safety with an emphasis on

the OSHA construction regulations. Background information

will be an analysis of accident records, news articles, papers

and statistics gathered as post indicators. These “post

indicators” represent a sampling of industry shortcomings

and movements to better itself.

Definition of Terms

Cave-ins: The separation of a mass of soil or rock material from

the sides of an excavation, or the loss of soil from under a

trench shield or support system, and its sudden movement

into the excavation, either by falling or sliding, in sufficient

quantity so that it could entrap, bury or otherwise injure and

immobilize a person (Safety requirements, 1998).

Excavation: Any manmade cut, cavity, trench, or depression in

an earth surface, formed by earth removal (Safety

requirements, 1998).

Excavation competent person: One who has received training

and can demonstrate knowledge, skills, and abilities to fulfill

the duties required by this standard and is capable of

identifying existing and predictable hazards in the

surroundings or working conditions that are unsanitary,

hazardous, or dangerous to employees, and who has the

authorization and the responsibility to take prompt corrective

measures to eliminate or control the hazards and conditions

(Safety requirements, 1998).

Excavation Safety and Health Plan: The written safety and

health plan developed by the contractor for the work that

describes the requirements and procedures to be

implemented (Safety requirements, 1998).

Protective System: A method of protecting employees from

cave-ins, from materials that could fall or roll from an

excavation face or into an excavation, or from the collapse of

adjacent structures. Examples are: support systems, sloping

and benching systems, and shielding systems (Occupational

Safety, 2007).

Shield: A structure that is able to withstand the forces imposed

on it by a cave-in and thereby protects employees within the

structure (Occupational Safety, 2007).

Shoring: A structure such as a metal hydraulic, mechanical or

timber shoring system that supports the sides of an

excavation which is designed to prevent cave-ins (Safety

requirements, 1998).

Sloping: A method of protecting employees from cave-ins by

excavating to form sides of an excavation that are inclined

away from the excavation (Safety requirements, 1998). The

angle of the slope differs with factors including soil type,

environmental conditions and application of surcharges.

Trench: A narrow excavation, in relation to its length, made

below the surface of the ground. In general, the depth is

greater than the width, but measures less than 15 feet at the

base (Occupational Safety, 2007).


AASHTO - American Association of State Highway and

Transportation Officials

ACCSH - Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and


AGC - Associated General Contractors

ASFE - Association of Soil and Foundation Engineers

CDC - Center for Disease Control and Prevention

CPWR - The Center to Protect Workers’ Rights

US-DOT – United States- Department of Transportation

ERG - Eastern Research Group

IMIS - Integrated Management Information System

NBS - National Bureau of Standards

NIOSH - National Institute for Occupational Safety and


NPRM - Notice of Proposed Rule Making

NSC - National Safety Council

OSHA - Occupational Safety and Health Administration

Chapter 2

Review of Related Literature

Yokel, F.Y. and Stanevich, R.L. (1983). Development

of Draft Construction Safety Standards for Construction-

Volume 1, No. 82-06-M NBS/NIOSH.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act went into

effect along side several existing standards which were

incorporated into the new act. The excavation standard

became Subpart P under 29 CFR 1926. This new standard

was considered cumbersome with numerous issues to be

addressed. As time progressed, minor word and definition

changes occurred, but there were larger changes on the

horizon. This document reflects recommendations made by

NIOSH, after a study by the National Bureau of Standards,

to what potential changes needed to be made. “The study

represents a consolidation of technical research including

actual construction practices and the state of knowledge in

geotechnical and structural engineering.” (Yokel &

Stanevich, 1983, p.1). The study, completed in 1980, was

presented in five workshops giving interested parties a

chance to review the recommendations and discuss possible

changes. These five regional workshops, held across the

United States, were sponsored by unions, engineering

associations and contractor associations. Other interested

parties in attendance included the shoring industry,

government departments, individuals and groups. The

industry feedback was documented for review by OSHA in

the proposed rule making process.

Safety Requirements for Excavations,

(1998).ANSI/ASSE A10.12 – 1998 (R-2005) American

National Standards Institute, American Society of Safety


The A10.12-1998 is a voluntary consensus standard

and as such, is not a regulatory standard as is OSHA’s Code

of Federal Regulations. There are occasions in which OSHA

will reference ANSI standards as a proprietary standard.

Sometimes an organization or association has already

instituted a “good work practice,” often OSHA recognizes

this opportunity and utilizes them in place of rewriting a new


The A10.12-1998 standard worked its way through

committee by consensus, meaning that a majority of the

participants felt that the language was strong enough to

approve it and pass it along. The committee is made up of

industry professionals including Dr. Jack L. Mickle Professor

Emeritus Iowa State University, Jim Lapping P.E. and CSP

from the AFL-CIO, George Kennedy, Safety Director for the

National Utilities Contractors Association (NUCA), Travis

Parsons with Laborers Health and Safety Fund of North

America (LHSFNA), Michael Hayslip P.E. CSP with

Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), the United

States Army Corps of Engineers, the Operating Engineers

Union, the AGC of America and OSHA.

To place both the OSHA standard and the

ANSI/ASSE standard side by side, the similarities are quite

apparent. In the layman’s eye, the regulations and

recommendations are not far apart in their approach,

however the differences are there. As the “scope” states,

“This standard applies to all open excavations made in the

earth’s surface that require worker and/or property

protection.” This is an interesting distinction in that property

is also mentioned. The OSHA standard under 29 CFR 1926

subpart P also states “what” is covered, however, OSHAs

purpose of worker protection shows a somewhat limited

view, though we must understand OSHAs purpose which is

to protect workers from exposures to hazards in the

workplace. Other differences can be found in minor definition

differences to added sections including owner, contractor

and subcontractor responsibilities.

The ASSE insists their A10.12 is more stringent than

the OSHA standard; however, there is some room for

improvement. During a teleconference in 2005 presented by

ASSE and four standing A10.12 committee members,

several comments and questions arose about the wording

and meaning of several A10.12 sections. ASSE publicized

the event and released much of the proceedings on their

website. Much was addressed and a few questions were

answered, and in the end, valuable information was shared

in both directions. This type of communication will always be

necessary to address and promote change when needed.

“ANSI standards have to be reaffirmed, withdrawn or

revised every five years in an automatic cycle.”(Timothy R.

Fisher, staff liaison with Standards Development Committee

of ASSE, 2007). Even though the standard is not referenced

by any agencies, it is still referenced within contracts and

working agreements in addition to present regulations.

Federal Register/ Vol. 54, No.209/ Tuesday, October

31, 1989/ Rules and Regulations, Preamble-Subpart P

Occupational Safety and Health Administration;

Occupational Safety and Health Standards – Excavations;

Final rule.

In the preamble, OSHA had identified early on that

even with a standard in place that excavation-related

accidents resulting in fatalities and injuries were still

occurring on the job regardless of what was happening with

the regulations. Hence, the reasoning for the National

Bureau of Standard’s study regarding practices on jobsites’

(Yokel & Stanevich, 1983). The preamble did not specify

each and every comment made during the study, but

outlined specific areas that needed to be addressed as

deemed by OSHA. The preamble also presented each of the

Notices of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) which is a set

period of time for the public to comment on new changes.

These proposed changes also give us a reference to the

meaning or intent of the rule. An example of this can be seen

in the Federal Register/ Vol.54, No. 209/ Rules and

Regulations pg. 45895, “B. Problems with the existing

standard.” In the body of the explanation, an argument is

given about two conflicting sections within the rule. To give

further credence to the existing rule, two court cases are

reviewed and shown that the rule stood in both cases.

However, OSHA understood the rule to be “ambiguous,”

therefore, they decided to reword the section. Language is

often changed during the review process, when good

arguments are made and review by the Advisory Committee

on Construction Safety and Health can see the need.

National Safety Council (2001), Injury Facts, 2001

edition, National Safety Council.

This book is an annual compilation of data gathered

through a dozen different sources including the Bureau of

Labor Statistics, the Federal Highway Administration,

National Fire Protection Association, National Transportation

Safety Board, the Weather Service and more. The

information gathered is varied to show you the myriad of

injuries and where they occurred. The summary and trends

section tells us how we stand in comparison to previous

years, for example “...unintentional injury deaths were

unchanged from 1999 to the year 2000; and the 2000

estimate is less than 1% lower than the 1998 counts.”

The construction statistics are found throughout the

book. Construction statistics include falls, confined spaces,

injuries by Standard Industrial Classification (SIC), age, sex,

the part of the body affected and exposure.

There are 170 pages of statistics broken into different

sections. Each section is labeled by area of concern

including work, motor vehicles, home and community,

occupational health, environmental health, unintentional

injuries, state data and supporting appendices and sources.

Occupational Safety and Health (2007), United States

Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health

Administrations website: http://osha.gov.

This website contains links to OSHA’s regulations,

standards, interpretations, OSHA directives, record keeping

requirements, enforcement activity, cooperative programs,

training information, news releases and business assistance

on compliance issues. The standards link opens to a list of

parts which are divisions of rules pertinent to specific ideas

areas of interest, for instance, Part 1903 refers to

inspections, citations and proposed penalties; Part 1910 is

the occupational safety and health standards for general

industry and Part 1926 safety and health regulations for


The interpretations link allows you to search a list of

OSHA interpretations by standard number or by word

search. These interpretations are answers to questions that

interested parties have sent to OSHA for a more in depth

explanation of how the rules pertain to a particular situation,

or what was originally intended in the writing of the rule.

Other helpful information is found under the training

link. OSHA has made several resources available through

this website including outreach training programs, links to

outside training providers, a link to OSHAs Office of Training

and Education which provides materials such as power

points, discussions and links to several other websites with

training and reference materials. The OSHA website also

has links to state plans giving you the option of viewing your

state specific occupational safety and health plan. At

present, there are 26 state plan states. Each of these is

given the power to run their own plan; however, at a

minimum, they must be at least as effective as the federal


Excavations (2000), United States Department of

Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

OSHA 2226.

This informational booklet was designed to give the

reader an updated view of the standard. It highlights specific

areas of interest that were changed in the last revision of the

standard on excavations found in 29 CFR 1926 subpart P.

In this document, an emphasis on planning is heavily

relied on from pre-bid planning to the company’s safety and

health program. Checklists are also introduced to catch

things like calling the states one-call system for locating

underground utility lines and ensuring that the type of

protective system used is adequate for the job conditions.

Other hazards associated with excavations and trenching

are discussed such as overhead hazards, water

accumulation, hazardous atmospheres, access and egress,

as well as hazard communication, access to medical and

exposure records.

Mickle, J.L., (2002) Excavation Safety (1990-2002),

Civil and Construction Engineering Department, Iowa State

University, Ames, IA.

Within the text, Dr. Mickle (2002) draws from the

“Highway Materials Engineering Module II: Soils and

Foundations Publication No.FHWA-HI-90-005, February,

1990.” He uses these materials throughout his lecture on

trenching, excavations and soil mechanics and soil science

concepts. An explanation of soil origins is discussed, as well

as the make-up of different soils. The basis for soil

classification is explained through three different soil

classification systems including the American Association of

State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) soil

classification, designed by the United States Bureau of

Public Roads in 1928; the Unified Soil classification system

developed by the United States Army Corps of Engineers in

conjunction with airfield construction during W.W.II; and the

Textural Soil Classification System which was designed to

meet the needs of agriculture. Because the Textural Soil

Classification system was the simplest to understand and

use, it was adopted by OSHA for its use in determining soil

classification in excavation work.

Another important topic within the text refers to the

effects of water on different soils. Dr. Mickle (2002) explains

this as a three-phase soil system. The three phases being

dry, damp and saturated show how water can affect the

different properties including the strength of the soil. Other

sections describe ground water movement, pressures and

the effects of frost.

Finally, soil compaction and stabilization are

discussed in the last chapter. The importance of compaction

is covered and summarized into three basic reasons of

decreased settlement, increased shear strength and

decreased permeability. Lastly discussed is soil stabilization

and the methods available to improve the properties of the

soil. The last category refers to chemical stabilization. The

purpose of chemical stabilization is to alter the soil properties

by the addition of a product that when brought into contact

with the soil to be stabilized reacts and creates a more

stable environment. Often this is using a product that

absorbs water and binds to the existing soil creating a stable

matrix. Several reasons for stabilizing are discussed along

with their other potential benefits.

Tschappet, W. (1998) Excavation, Trenching and Soil

Mechanics, OSHA 301 Manual, OSHA Office of Training and

Education, OSHA Training Institute.

This manual was designed and developed with the

OSHA compliance officer in mind. The basics of soil

mechanics and environmental influences on soil stability are

discussed. Other hazards associated with excavation work

including excavation equipment are also covered. Types of

field tests required to determine the soil classification are

explained, as well as, the tools used in the process. Once

the classification work is done, the various sloping, shoring

and shielding methods are broke down into their various

requirements. A list of competent person duties is defined so

the compliance officer can better determine if the contractor

in question knows what they are doing. A number of

checklists are also utilized within the manual to aid the

compliance safety and health officer in performing their

duties on the job. Some lists are question and answer types

for the competent person, others are simple yes / no answer

formats to check for compliance. Daily trench logs are shown

to aid the contractor in ensuring their compliance with the


Lastly, Manufacturers Tabulated Data Sheets are

discussed. They are referred to as manufacturers tab data

and they show the uses and limitations of your engineered

trenching and or excavation protection method. Other

information found in the tab data could show proper

installation methods, location and placement within the

excavation as well as dismantling procedures. The most

important piece to this tab data puzzle is the professional

engineers stamp on the document. Without this stamp, the

document is useless even with the manufacturers name and

model number in print. The document is made official by the


Plog, B.A., Materna, B., Vannoy, J., Gillen, M. (2006)

Strategies to Prevent Trenching-Related Injuries and

Deaths, The Center to Protect Workers Rights, March 2006.

This study was conducted in the State of California by

the University of California Berkley, California Department of

Health Services, the Public Health Institute and the

University of California at San Francisco as a cooperative

agreement with the National Institute for Occupational Safety

and Health (NIOSH). The cooperative agreement was made

under the Center to Protect Workers Rights (CPWR), a

research, training and service arm of the Building and

Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO.

The authors conducted their research by reviewing

scientific literature, injuries and investigations, interviewed

people within the industry including competent persons,

excavation workers, training providers, government

representatives, trade associations and OSHA enforcement


Through the literature review, several findings and insights

were found including changing bidding procedures and the

statistic that the greatest percentage of deaths occurring in

trenches was filled by non-union workers. Also determined

from the study was the primary cause of deaths’ in

excavations was caused by cave-ins. The study was full of

statistics supplied by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS),

California Occupational Safety and Health Administration

(Cal-OSHA), and the United States Census.

During the interviews, a number of reasons were

discovered as to why safe trenching was or was not

performed. Reasons such as attitude, training, insufficient

enforcement and costs were all cited. A common thread

which is cited in many papers and within the conclusion of

this paper is that a trained competent person is necessary

on every excavation and proper training is needed to ensure

that correct decisions are made before employees are

exposed to these hazards. OSHA visits are not considered

a good remedy since their coverage is thin and unlikely to

catch the worst offenders and that workers still enter

trenches daily oblivious to the danger or complacent to the

potential hazards.

Chapter 3


Research Approach

The excavation industry within construction is

regulated by the Occupational Health and Safety

Administration (OSHA) which is a regulatory arm of the

Department of Labor (DOL). Their history of regulations and

recordings of prior events, such as accidents, injuries and

compliance inspections have created a wealth of

documentation. A study of these and related literature,

discussions and interviews with safety professionals,

excavation competent persons, OSHA compliance and

consultation officers, will create the basis for most of this


Data Gathering Method

The data relevant to this study was found in a number

of locations including the archives of several associations

and organizations, literature searches within these archives

turned up magazines articles, statistics, interviews and

studies by those organizations. Interviews of industry

professionals, as well as, personal history within the

business presented a unique study of the data. The internet

was a useful tool to identify possible sources and to verify

information gained from other sources. Utilizing the web

enabled searches of large data bases such as OSHAs


Database of Study

The study of soils is a wide and varied field with

specialties from agriculture, the growing of plants in soil to

construction uses for the bases of roadways, runways and

buildings. Because of the broad nature in which soils are

used, the databases available are numerous. Keying in on

excavation and trenching safety, the field dwindles quickly to

regulatory issues, articles in newspapers and magazines,

and studies performed by industry groups and academia.

The source of choice became OSHAs website with their data

bases on accidents, injuries, inspections and fines. Through

calls and interviews with OSHA Compliance Safety and

Health Officers (CSHOs) much valuable information was

obtained along with discussions with consultation officers on

compliance issues and the common mistakes made by

contractors. Utilizing case studies from accident reports,

which are all too frequent, provided a 20/20 view of the

situations and what steps could have been taken to prevent

them. Standards groups also provided a wealth of data in

terms of best practices. Most are non-regulatory in nature

but accepted by segments of the industry.

Data Validity

Since a large portion of the data was located within

regulatory documents, the validity is warranted. The

newspaper articles were verified by other reliable sources

and statistics were only accepted by reputable organizations.

Interviews had the potential to be skewed by individual bias.

However, the questions asked were directed towards

professional opinion.

Originality and Limitations of the Data

The data is only as good as the data bases studied.

The information comes from varied sources, some being

regional and others trade specific. All sources originate in

the United States creating a limitation in terms of regulations.

The statistics are based on reported data, and given the fact

that not all incidents or accidents are reported, have some

limitations. Some statisticians have tried to extrapolate the

data to the entire population for unreported or under-

reported data, but unfortunately these numbers cannot be

verified. Conclusions drawn from this study are not novel

ideas; however, through the study and my 20 years of

experience, the conclusions are original.


“When we fail to plan, we plan to fail.” All too often it

seams to ring true that most job sites where fatal injuries

occur, planning was not high on the consideration list.

Construction sites all over the United States are set back

due to poor planning. Unfortunately, when poor planning

happens and sound safety and health programs are not in

place, people get hurt. It is not to say that all projects where

poor planning happens that people get hurt, but the

likelihood of an accident has risen. Having worked in the

industry for twenty years and watched company after

company talk a solid game in terms of safety, it is not

surprising to see their name appear in the paper because of

an accident. What the company has in their hand book does

not necessarily reflect what is happening on their job sites.

Over the last several years, big pushes from insurance

groups, organized labor and some portions of the industry

for better trained workers has occurred. In places where

these pushes have happened, we are seeing a more aware

work force.

In a recent discussion about OSHA training for field

personnel with the Safety Director for McGough

Construction, a Minnesota based commercial general

contractor, he stated, “I feared the thought of everyone on

the job site looking for problems and consequently shutting

the job down. On the contrary they were like hundreds of

extra sets of eyes on the job, pointing out things that needed

to be addressed.” This awareness has made a difference in

site safety, insurance rates, number of recordable injuries

and fewer OSHA fines. Safety must be high on the list of

priorities, as well as, new employee orientation and training

for all employees. Without it, we are bound to relive the

problems of our past.

Chapter 4

Data Analysis

The construction standard on excavations was

intended to give the excavation contractor and construction

personnel working in and around excavations, an outline

from which they could follow and maintain a safe and

serviceable worksite. Throughout the history of the standard,

wording has changed within the standard, but the intent has

not. This analysis will hopefully define what is necessary to

create a safe and healthful jobsite using not only OSHA

regulations, but solid work practices tested in the workplace

and proven through industry usage. These work practices

were obtained through industry professionals, including

contractors, safety consultants, engineers, trade

associations, contractor associations, and standards


Some questionable work practice examples will be

shown through a review of news articles which portray how

accidents can occur due to a misunderstanding of the rules

or a blatant disregard for their use. In addition to work

practices, there are steps management can take to ensure

workplace safety in and around excavations.

A thorough reading of the Occupational Safety and

Health Standards (2007) for excavations, found in the Code

of Federal Regulation 29 CFR 1926, will give headings and

subject matter for consideration on an excavation project.

However, because of certain vague features within the rules,

it is far from a stand-alone document from which to draw

from. A good example of this would be under CFR 1926.651

(b)(3); when digging near the location of underground

utilities, one shall locate by an “acceptable means.” The

wording “acceptable means” does not convey any particular

method. This was intended to leave the door open for new

technologies. If the wording stated “hand digging only,” the

entire industry would suffer from not allowing the use of new

discoveries such as vacuum excavators. Much of this

ambiguity is for adjustment to different locations. Not all job

sites are the same and therefore, the rules may be

interpreted differently. With the internet, many of these

inconclusive rules can be accessed for their interpretation.

With a few clicks on the keyboard, OSHAs

interpretation pages can be opened at http://www.osha.gov.

Searching by rule number or by subject matter, one can

quickly locate what OSHA’s interpretations are. There are a

number of methods to access OSHA for aid; such as calling

direct to the federal offices or for state covered states calling

the state OSHA office. The OSHA offices are generally split

into two primary categories; the first is the Consultation

Office. Under Consultation, employers can get assistance

with their safety programs. Consultation, when invited, will

come to your job site to carry out full inspections or can be

tailored to your specific needs. This service can aid an

employer who questions whether they are in compliance with

the regulations and also prevent the other arm of OSHA from

visiting unannounced. When the second arm of OSHA,

compliance, comes to your doorstep for an inspection, any

problems they find will generally result in a citation with an

attached fine. Many contractors consider it a preemptive

strike to invite consultation out and make changes from their

recommendations rather than to wait for a visit from


Scope, Application and Definitions

The OSHA standard on excavations starts with scope

and application. This gives a basis for where the rule

applies. Following scope and application are definitions

which are important with respect to OSHA’s meaning within

the subpart. One must pay particular attention to these

definitions because of the differences between Webster’s

dictionary definition and OSHA’s. For instance “competent

person” –

• Merriam-Webster’s (2008) definition for competent

states: proper or rightly pertinent; having requisite or

adequate ability; legally qualified.

• OSHA’s (2007) definition of a competent person

states, “one who is capable of identifying existing or

predictable hazards in the surroundings or working

conditions which are unsanitary, hazardous or

dangerous to employees, and who has authorization

to take prompt corrective measures to

eliminate them.”

These instances of distinction can make a difference

on the jobsite. In an inspection, if the compliance officer

asks, “Who is the competent person?” The laymen, without

proper training, might cock his head and say “We are all

competent here.” This would be the beginning of a very long

day. As the definition state “an individual that can identify

existing and predictable hazards … and has the authority to

take corrective action.” By definition, this person should

know what a competent person is, what their duties are and

what they are responsible for. Such a person would not only

know the OSHA standard for trenching and excavation under

subpart P, but should also have field experience in

identifying hazards and the most effective means to protect

employees (Henderson, 2003). This would generally entail a

training program by either the competent person’s company,

a trade program, or by another outside provider.

The training of competent persons is a vital tool

necessary to ensure the safety of the workers and to ensure

compliance with the regulations that pertain to their work

environment. The training of a competent person stretches

further than just the rules of subpart P. There are several

subparts within the construction standard that could

potentially apply to an excavation site that the contractor

should also know about. For instance, in subpart C, General

Safety and Health provisions; requirements for first aid,

safety training and education, fire protection and prevention,

housekeeping, sanitation and personal protective equipment,

all are potential issues that training should cover. As this

study progresses, we will take a closer look at how other

regulations are also in effect as they pertain to excavations.

Project Evaluation

Before excavation work can begin, a thorough jobsite

inspection and evaluation must take place (Excavations,

2000). The scope of the project needs to be taken into

consideration. First, this would involve looking at the space

necessary to complete the project. Factors that would affect

this may include the depth of the excavation and the type of

soil being excavated. For example, a three-foot deep

excavation to install an electrical service line to a home will

require only a narrow trenching machine; however, next to

the electrical service, a waterline must be installed eight feet

deep to ensure proper coverage so the water line does not

freeze. This cannot be excavated with a trencher in most


An excavation with sloping walls or some other type

of trench protection system would be required for this

application. Depending on the soil type, this excavation may

be as much as 26 feet wide at the top. If the soil type was a

granular material, the slope would require a 1.5:1 slope ratio.

This would mean that for every foot in depth, the excavator

would have to open the sides 1.5 feet horizontally. If this

same excavation was made in a hard clay soil that met the

definition of a class “A” soil, the excavation width would drop

dramatically. With a short duration excavation, the slope

ratio could drop to ½:1(Occupational Safety and Health

Administration, 2007), which would leave a trench width on

top as small as 10 feet. When looking at the project and

what the excavation area would cover, the difference

between the sand example and the clay example has a

definable impact on what existing features may be within the

proposed excavation. A sidewalk running parallel to the

excavation eight feet from center line of the pipe installation

would not be affected in the clay example, but would need to

be removed or protected in the sand example.

These surface encumbrances need to be identified

prior to excavating so that the hazard that they pose can be

controlled or eliminated (Occupational Safety and Health

Administration, 2007). Underground utilities can cause the

same types of hazards by their proximity to the excavation; if

for instance, a large diameter storm sewer pipe running near

the excavation. If the alignment of the excavation runs

parallel and deeper than the previously installed pipe, the

previously excavated material and/or the pipe itself could

potentially cause injury. With the previously excavated

material, the shear strength of the soil has been weakened

and can cause a failure of the excavation walls. This

separation of soil from the side walls is a “cave-in.” If the soil

was supporting the storm sewer pipe, now we would have

the potential of a pipe joint failure, along with the possibility

of the pipe collapsing into our excavation.

Locating Existing Underground Utilities

Underground installations must be located prior to

excavation not just to determine the excavation conflicts, but

also to prevent damaging the other installations. For several

years, utility companies have been burying lines in utility

right-of-ways to bring services to the communities that need

and want them. Services such as power, telephone, fuel,

sewer and water all run parallel to the roadways. However,

many of these installations run in other locations. Service

lines generally run perpendicular to the main lines and some

run at angles. Pipelines carrying crude and natural gas are

often found running through open fields, swamps and

wooded areas taking the path of least resistance.

Because of these non-typical locations, we cannot

make assumptions as to where buried utilities are. To locate

these buried utilities, each state has developed a “one-call

system.” These are private associations of utility owners that

have joined together to prevent damage by providing a

service to anyone who intents on excavating soil and may

potentially contact their utilities. The purpose of the “one-call

system” is to mark the approximate location of underground

utilities with markings such as paint or flags to indicate their

position. Each state has its own requirements for notification

before excavation work commences, typically a 48-hour

notice before excavation work begins.

Once marked, the contractor is responsible for

unearthing the utility by a method which will minimize the

chance of damage to the line or lines. This is generally

performed by hand-shoveling or pot-holing, however, new

methods such as vacuum excavation have seen more use

each year since its introduction. Vacuum excavation uses a

couple of different methods, but the most preferred method

utilizes pressurized water to help break up the soil using a

high pressure stream of water, then using a heavy industrial

vacuum to remove the soil. This method has proven to be

highly productive for uncovering buried lines, especially

when there are several lines in close proximity to each other

and/or in soil that is not easily dug by hand.

These utilities are found at depths of 30 feet or more,

and some are installed as shallow as two to three feet.

However, because of changes to the grade after installation,

some of these lines may run very shallow below the surface.

A common source of damage comes from contractors

making assumptions as to the depth at which the lines are

buried. When the assumption is made that the lines are

deep, damage occurs when the equipment digs down and

contacts the line. The opposite can also be the case where

the assumption is made that the lines must be shallower.

This is a common mistake made by contractors which utilize

certain “trenchless” installation methods. Horizontal

directional drilling contractors use a machine that drills

through the soil using a steerable head. When the drill head

comes out of the ground at a predestined location, the utility

to be installed is attached to the drill pipe and then pulled

back through the ground. This blind drilling method has

pierced, cut and damaged several existing lines because the

contractor neglected to uncover the lines due to the fact that

they assumed the lines were deeper and would not be in


Access and Egress

When the excavation work has reached the point

where workers can enter the excavation, a safe form of entry

must be provided. Acceptable forms of entry and egress

from an excavation area include stairways, ladders and

ramps (Occupational Safety and Health Administration,

2007). The choice of which method to use depends on a

number of factors, such as depth, soil type and the length of

time the excavation will be open.

If there are several workers that will be using the

access, or there are materials that will be transferred into

and out of the excavation area, a ramp could be the chosen

method. If the excavation is to be considered a short

duration excavation, and there are only a few workers

moving in and out, a ladder may be a better choice. In a

different example, if the excavation is going to be open for a

longer duration and the excavation protective system in

place is constructed vertically, a stair tower might be the best

choice in this instance.

This is where we begin to see other safety

requirements, in addition to the excavation rule. In the

example where a stair tower may be used, not only is

OSHAs subpart X for stairways and ladders applicable, but

subpart L for scaffolds must also be addressed. Under

subpart X, stairway requirements for construction sites will

include: landings, angle of stairs, riser and tread sizing, and

general condition requirements. The mention of stair towers

under scaffolding subpart L also makes reference to railing,

platform and stair-tread requirements.

A ramp is not as cut and dry as the stair tower.

Ramps are discussed under access to scaffolds, but the

reference does not cover earthen ramps or ramps cut out of

the same soil from which the excavation was made. There

have been many attempts to define what an appropriate

slope should be. If using the OSHA reference regarding

ramps and walkways under the scaffold rule, “no ramp or

walkway shall be inclined more than a slope of one vertical

to three horizontal.” Another view in Safety Requirements for

Excavations (1998) under the A-10 committee on safety in

construction and demolition states “Ramps shall be

negotiated in a standing position and shall not be steeper

than 34 degrees as measured from the horizontal,” (Safety

requirements, 1998, p.14). They also make reference to a

slope 1.5 horizontal to one vertical making it a much steeper

angle than that of OSHA’s requirement.

Another issue which needs to be addressed is the

number of access / egress points in the excavation. The

number is dependent on the type and size of excavation as

well as the number of entrants in the excavation. A small

excavation with few entrants would only require one ladder,

ramp or stairway. However, as the number of entrants

increase so should the number of access points.

Trenches are a type of excavation which are

commonly used for the installation of utilities. While working

in a trench, the exposed worker should travel no more than

25 feet to an egress location (Occupational Safety and

Health Administration, 2007). In a utility trench where

workers may be moving up and down the length of the

trench and moving a ladder with them keeping it in close

proximity to their location would be adequate.

Entering an excavation protected by a trench box

would also require a proper form of egress. What ever

method used, the employee would have to be protected at

all times. The use of a ladder would require its installation in

the trench box. Once in the box, the employee is protected,

however, when exiting the excavation the employee maybe

exposed to a different hazard. Once on top of the box, the

employee must step out away from the box. In the event that

the box top is even with the top of the excavation, it may only

be a small step to the surface. However, if that surface is not

supported it could potentially cave-in down between the side

wall the excavation and the box wall. We would also need to

protect the step area. Some contractors have addressed this

problem by installing walkways which are attached to the top

of the trench boxes and extend the necessary distance to a

safe location away from the trench edge.

High Visibility Warning Vest

Since the specific requirements for excavations went

into effect under subpart P, much has changed regionally on

the requirements of warning vests. Several states have

adopted more stringent guidelines on warning vest

requirements. The wording under OSHA’s requirements is

quite vague and leaves much to interpretation. One example

of state regulations is Minnesota-OSHAs Standards for

operation of mobile earth-moving equipment (2008), 5207-

1000. This standard requires “anyone working adjacent

motor vehicles . . . shall be provided with and required to

wear a high visibility warning vest.” The rule goes on to

define the standard the garment must uphold by referencing

ANSI / ISEA standard 107-2004. This recognized standard

requires the minimum design and performance for the

garment. (American National Standard for, 1999)

Another definition difference is the Federal OSHA’s

requirement to wear a warning vest only when exposed to

“public” vehicular traffic. Taken from a statistic in the late

1990’s, only 15% of worksite fatalities in struck-by accidents

were caused by public vehicular traffic (Tschappet, 1998),

which means the other 85% were struck-by something on

the job site. A large portion of the 85% was struck-by

construction equipment on the jobsite.

The change in Minnesota’s Earth Moving Equipment

rule was designed to handle where federal safety vest

requirements leave off. This rule takes into account that it is

not just public traffic, but the very vehicles which are brought

on site to make our jobs easier that in turn, also make our

jobs more deadly. Calling for the use of a vest on its own,

falls very short of what the industry as a whole has tried to

do, which is put controls in place to minimize the hazard.

One of these controls calls for training. This administrative

control makes the workers on the ground aware that there

are certain predictable hazards to watch for. Also,

maintaining proper communication with all parties involved

will greatly reduce the hazards and by identifying blind spots

and keeping safe working distances will empower the worker

to be more careful in their surroundings.

The introduction of engineering controls also reduces

potential hazards. An example would be the use of back-up

alarms, swing locks, parking brakes and placing the

transmission in neutral when people approach the vehicle.

When we ensure these controls are in place and we still

have the exposure, then warning vests or high visibility

personal protective equipment become your last line of


Exposure to Falling Loads

During excavation, the equipment used can be one of

the hazards as discussed in the previous pages. Another

mode in which this equipment may cause a hazard is in the

lifting or handling of materials. Both the lifted load and/or the

elevated portion of equipment produce a serious hazard. If

the excavated material is loaded into another piece of

equipment, such as a dump truck, the potential for falling

material is great. Therefore, the operator of the haul vehicle

must either remain in the vehicle’s cab or away from the

loading radius of the operation (Tschappet, 1998). The cab

should only be used when the strength of the cab is

determined to be strong enough to withstand the falling load

of the soil.

In the utilities field, the lifting of piping, appurtenances

and concrete structures is commonplace. Great care must

be taken in order to keep from swinging these products over

the heads of the workers in the excavation. In recent years,

there have been precedent setting cases where this has

been allowed. In one particular case, an OSHA compliance

officer was at a sanitary sewer installation project when the

contractor was installing a precast concrete manhole. The

sections are cylindrical-shaped pieces that stack and

interlock with a rubber seal in between the sections. Inside

the structure is a pre-cast ladder system which is installed

into the walls of the manhole sections. For proper alignment

purposes, workers position themselves inside the sections

which are already set in place. When the next section is

swung into position, a worker will grab the section and rotate

it until the ladder section aligns to the steps in the previously

placed section. This practice puts the worker in an exposed

position underneath the pre-cast manhole sections.

It has been argued that this practice is an industry

standard and that no one has been hurt in this practice.

Thus, continued standard operating procedures were to

require the individual exposed, to stay in the lower portion of

the manhole, well below the top edge where a rigging failure

might cause an injury. Only upon the section being placed

within inches of the preset sections should a worker expose

themselves above the preset section to adjust the alignment.

This precedence allows the practice to continue as long as it

can be shown to be as effective as the rule in place.

The use of hydraulics is quite prevalent in

construction and the potential hazards are cause for concern

when taking into account the stored energy in these

machines. A bucket, forks or blade from a bulldozer weighs

as little as a few hundred pounds to several thousand

pounds. The hydraulic components that raise and hold these

attachments in place are comprised of pumps, hoses and

cylinders. The fluid in the system is designed for the

pressures and heat created by the system as the pressure

builds. A failure in any part of this system can allow gravity to

take effect and cause the raised portion of the equipment to

fall to the ground. A small leak in a hydraulic line or fitting

may not cause much of an alarm because the elevated part

will slowly lower from position. However, these slow leaks

can lead to greater failures of the system. If left unchecked,

a greater failure such as a fitting failing or hose splitting open

would cause the raised attachment to fall as if dropped from

the sky.

A review of related OSHA standards including the

Lock-Out / Tag-Out standard, the concept of controlling

stored energy is discussed. The purpose of the Lock-Out /

Tag-Out standard is to prevent injuries to employees from

unexpected energization, start-up or release of stored

energy in machines with which they are working

(Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 2007). This

standard is only applicable when servicing or maintaining a

piece of equipment, however an understanding of these

regulations can help us identify why we would not place our

bodies in these situations.

A recent example of this happened when two men

were working with a skid loader and they noticed a leak in

one of the fittings. To access the fitting, the bucket had to be

elevated high enough to get a wrench on the fitting. After the

bucket was lifted up, the operator exited the cab underneath

the bucket. He retrieved a wrench and started to work on the

fitting. The Laborer working with him supported the bucket

with a board of lumber. The operator turned the fitting the

wrong way releasing the pressure, the weight snapped the

board and crushed the laborer. The operator was seriously

injured, but survived; the laborer was pronounced dead at

the scene (2002 Minnesota-Occupational Safety, 2008).

In another example of falling loads, an excavating

contractor was digging a trench for a waterline. The material

was mucky clay that stuck to their shovels and boots. On this

particular day, a laborer in the bottom of the trench was

directing the back hoe operator to attain the correct grade.

After the bucket was filled, it was raised to the side of the

excavation and dumped onto the spoils pile. As the bucket

was swung back into the excavation, a large piece of clay

which had stuck onto the back of the bucket came loose.

With the speed generated by the swing of the bucket and the

height at which the bucket was swung a deadly scene was

created; the large piece of dirt struck the laborer, knocking

him to the ground and killing him instantly (2002 Minnesota-

Occupational Safety, 2008).

The next example of elevated loads is a recent

newcomer to our hazard list. More and more manufacturers

are attempting to address the needs of contractors by adding

attachments to their equipment so more can be done with

less equipment. So is the case of the quick attaching

systems used by manufacturers to create whole lines of

attachments to a single piece of equipment. These

attachments connect via a quick attachment assembly.

When done incorrectly, these attachments become falling

object hazards when the operator tries to raise them in the

air (Hazards of Inadequately, 2005). In recent years, the

number of accidents has risen due to the continued

popularity and increased use of these tools. These early

failures were attributed to improper design, incorrect use and

general lack of knowledge of proper attachment procedures.

The industry has addressed the issue and made strides in

design and proper training.

Warning Systems

Once an excavation has started and the hole begins

to open deeper and/or wider, another hazard begins which is

in relation to nearby equipment, vehicles and people. An

excavation adjacent to an existing roadway with traffic flow

creates a potential problem for those that are driving and

anyone in the excavation as well. Construction traffic running

alongside the excavation creates vibration which can be

detrimental to the excavation slope. Vehicles such as dump

trucks backing to the edge, cranes, backhoes, bulldozers

and other equipment running near the edge, need solid

foundations on which to operate.

As these pieces of equipment near the top edge of

the excavation, the soil can handle less stress with the

removal of the soil from within the excavation. With less

support, the likelihood of failure near the excavation is

greater. One must take into consideration, the soil type, the

weight of the equipment and what has been used to protect

the slope in order to determine how close one can operate to

the excavation. Generally, the larger the weight and/or the

deeper the excavation, the greater the distance you must

keep from the excavation. A good rule of thumb is to

maintain a distance of at least 1.5 times the depth away from

the deepest location (Trenching and Excavation Safety,


Figure 1

Depth vs. Distance

At least 15’

10’ Deep


In our example, an excavation 10 feet in depth would

require a minimum of 15 feet of distance away from the

excavation bottom.

If a piece of equipment must approach closer, the use

of barriers such as stop logs and/or berms at least as high

as the axel on that particular piece of equipment is

considered acceptable (Haul Road Inspection Handbook,

1999) . In the event neither is available, a signal person

could be used that could signal when the approaching

vehicle should stop. Great care should be exercised when

dumping near an edge since the weight of the vehicle will

shift rearward when the load is raised. When the load leaves

the back of the truck, the center of gravity will move further

forward creating a stable vehicle once again.

When finished for the day, if the excavation is to be

left open, consideration for the general public must be

attended. Whether near a subdivision, outside a busy mall or

even in a seemingly uninhabited location; barricades should

be placed around the excavation for pedestrian traffic. Snow

fences or orange safety fences generally handle the job.

Erect fences back away from the edge of the excavation so

someone walking around them will not slide underneath; the

fence should be designed with enough vertical supports to

hold it taut without sag.

Air Monitoring

Once the trench is left open for a period of time

unattended, certain presumptions should take place. The

first is that since the excavation was left unattended that any

number of potential problems could then exist. Next, you

must observe the surroundings; things you might look for

would include standing water from rain, thawing or other

nearby sources.

Another presumption is the potential for hazardous

atmospheres. This observation may not be as obvious as

standing water. There may be signs indicating potential air

contamination such as hazy air in the excavation or distinct

smells, however, never assume because of the lack of

evidence that the air is not contaminated, the assumption is

the opposite; in other words, guilty until proven innocent. Any

excavation four feet or greater in depth needs to be air

monitored when under certain circumstances (Occupational

Safety and Health Administration, 2007). An excavation left

open and unattended overnight should be monitored prior to

entry; any excavation where hazardous materials are stored

nearby, landfills where gases such as methane seep through

the soil and even seemingly mundane excavations such as

excavations near existing sewer systems must be examined.

The reason for this concern stems from the very real

hazards faced in confined space entry.

The definition of an excavation gives us a clue to the

possible hazardous conditions, “any man-made cut, cavity,

trench or depression . . .” (Safety requirements, 1998, p.13).

This cavity is a hole that can contain any number of

atmospheric conditions including oxygen deficiency and or

flammable gases. There are a number of conditions that

could cause these accumulations such as soil contamination

and or pipes leaking their contents.

For oxygen (02) deficient atmosphere to occur, one of

two things must happen. Number one, the oxygen would

have to be burned by oxygen-consuming equipment or

processes, including internal combustion engines, biological

processes and or oxidation. The second method in which

oxygen (02) deficiency could occur is by displacement. For

displacement to occur, a gas with a vapor density different

than that of air would need to be introduced. For an

excavation, that would mean a gas heavier than air. This

material would tend to settle in lower areas displacing the

oxygen and lowering the oxygen concentration.

OSHA regulates air quality in terms of worker

protection. For 02 deficiencies the 02 in air would have to

drop to 19.5% by volume. Taking into consideration that

clean uncontaminated air is approximately 20.9% by volume

would mean a 1.4% drop in 02 content. Relative to the

overall percentage, it does not sound like much but it is

enough to cause concern. When looking at the two potential

methods in which 02 can become deficient, an excavation

made 02 deficient by burning may not be dangerous to your

health if at 19.5%; however, if the 02 was displaced by a

chemical to the same level, the air may be extremely toxic.

If we look back at how the body handles 02 deficient

atmospheres below 19.5%, small physiological events can

be seen:

Table 1

Physiological Effects of Oxygen Deprivation by Percentage

21 Typical oxygen concentration

15-19 First sign of hypoxia

12-15 Impaired muscular coordination, perception

and judgment

8-11 Mental failure, unconsciousness, nausea,


6.8 Six minutes 50% probability of death; eight

minutes 100%

probability of death

≤6 Coma in 40 seconds, convulsions, death

Source: (U.S. Chemical Safety and Investigation Board,

1998, p. 3)

Looking at these same levels where oxygen

displacement is happening, a toxic chemical exposure will

have a completely different effect.

Table 2

Hydrogen Sulfides (H2S) physiological effects:

.13 ppm Odor threshold (smells like rotten eggs)

10 ppm OSHA permissible exposure limit (regulatory

level that an exposed worker can work up to),

beginning eye irritation

100 ppm OSHA ceiling limit (should not be entered

without appropriate respiratory protection)

coughing, loss of sense of smell

Source: (The Appropriate Method for, 1995)

A closer look into the relationship of percentage by

volume in relation to parts per million (ppm), we can make

connections to exposures and health effects.

Table 3

Relationship of parts per million (ppm) to percentage of


Example: 1,000,000 ppm = 100% volume

100,000 ppm = 10% volume

10,000 ppm = 1% volume

1,000 ppm = .10% volume

100 ppm = .01% volume

10 ppm = .001% volume

In Texas in 1997, a worker was trying to install a

sewer line out of an existing sanitary sewer manhole. In

attempting to drill into the manhole, his drill bit stuck solid in

the wall. He entered the manhole to try to dislodge the bit

from the wall, but was overcome by the hydrogen sulfide

(H2S) gas in the manhole. The workers 37-year-old foreman

attempted to rescue him by entering the space only to

succumb to the gas himself. A few hours later, after the

bodies had been removed, the air was tested and found to

contain 350 ppm of hydrogen sulfide (H2S) (Sewer lines

Continue to Take Lives, 2002). At 350 ppm or about .035%

by volume, it would cause the 02 to drop from 20.9% to

20.865%. In other words, oxygen is not the only concern in

an excavation. Toxins, as well as flammable gases are a


Our last example was a confined space as defined by

OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health, 2007). It was a

space large enough to enter, however, not designed for

continuous human occupancy and would be difficult to

escape in an emergency. With the addition of the potential to

contain hazardous atmospheres this space has now become

a “Permit-Required-Confined-Space.”

This definition, when applied to an excavation, could

also occur. In Des Moines, Iowa in 2002, a tragic event took

place. A sewer rehabilitation contractor with 30 years of

experience was on site. They had an open excavation which

was approximately 12 feet deep with a trench box used as

protection in the excavation. On the morning of the accident,

two workers entered the space to start work for the day.

About a foot of ground water had made conditions difficult,

but not impossible. After a few minutes in the excavation,

both men fell face first into the water. The foreman

immediately called 911 and then proceeded into the

excavation to help the fallen men. The foreman and two

additional employees were able to turn the two men over in

the bottom of the excavation, but before they could escape,

they also collapsed in the trench (Sewer lines Continue to

Take Lives, 2002). Luckily, the foreman remembered his

training regarding first response to a confined space

incident. If that had not happened, the firefighters would

have not shown up in time to save the foreman and the two

would-be rescuers. Unfortunately, it was too late for the first

two that had fallen.

After the medical examiner released his report, we

learned that the first two men that had fallen had drowned.

The H2S in the excavation had been released when they had

walked through the ground water. The H2S, undoubtedly,

came from the leaking sewer system and had permeated the

surrounding soil.

The contractor on this day had an air monitor in their

truck but assumed the hazard was in the manholes and in

the piping. However when those same lines, often

constructed of clay pipe with poor joint construction, exfiltrate

their contents into the surrounding soil? The H2S

concentrations were not great enough to pose a toxic threat

on a level that could kill, but was toxic enough to cause


Workers deaths are often characterized as drowning,

when H2S chemical asphyxiation is the actual culprit (Sewer

lines Continue to Take Lives, 2003). During interviews with

workers that had worked on the same sewer line just a year

earlier claimed to smell sewer gas, which smells like rotten

eggs, every day on their project. They had tested these

same lines and found levels high enough to require


The last concern we have, in terms of air monitoring,

is flammable atmospheres. Excavation conflicts where gas

lines are damaged can quite often result in the release of

natural gas into the atmosphere. Even though this gas is

lighter than air, and more often than not, escapes without

ignition, the potential is there. Any nearby equipment or

process may potentially ignite the gas and cause an

explosion and/or fire.

If we look at what is required to have a fire;

• 02

• Fuel

• Ignition source

The fuel escaping out of the line is almost pure gas, and

therefore cannot be ignited immediately. However, the

further from the source, the more mixing of fuel and 02

occurs possibly creating the right mixture, now all that is

needed is an ignition source. The lowest percentage of fuel

mixed with air in which combustion can happen is called the

lower flammable limit (LFL). The highest concentration

mixed with air in which combustion could happen would be

the upper flammable limit (UFL). The location where the fuel

is initially leaking from the pipe would be considered above

the UFL.

The following example is an analogous to the

explanation; at no time should anyone attempt to prove or

disprove. An example portraying this concept would be

holding a lit match or lighter 100 yards from a gas station. As

you walk towards the fuel pumps, you would probably be

able to smell the fuel but ignition is unlikely. You would be

standing in an area below the LFL or in what is commonly

called the “lean” range. As you progress towards the pumps,

the concentration would increase until you were in close

enough proximity to reach the LFL. The fire from your lighter

should be enough of an ignition source to ignite the mixture.

In the example of our leaking gas line, the percentage of gas

coming from the pipe would be so great it would extinguish

the fire at the point of the leak due to excess gas and limited

oxygen; this is referred to as the “rich” range.

Ignition sources can come from many places. For

example, sparks from the contact of an excavator buckets on

rock or static electricity discharging from an object. When

looking at a location with the potential for fire, controlling

parts of our system are important. Our first control is

monitoring the space we assume to potentially contain air


Next, if we know that a flammable atmosphere exists

in our space, we must control one or more of our variables in

the excavation. Looking back to what is needed to have a

fire: oxygen (02), fuel and ignition, we have the basis for fire

prevention by controlling at least one of these three

variables. In an open excavation, the removal of 02 is near

impossible and not a consideration in this condition; however

both the fuel and the ignition sources can be addressed.

Removal of one, if not both, controls the potential fire.

Methods of control can vary depending on the

situation, for example; is the source of fuel something we

introduced? Can we use an alternative in place of the

flammable product? If a flammable vapor already exists, can

ventilation control the atmosphere? The ignition sources may

be a little more difficult to control, but we can implement

SOP’s to help such as no smoking and/or hot work permits

(Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 2007).

The Hazards of and Control for Water Accumulation

When looking at soil composition, you cannot

overlook the water content in the soil. Its presence or

absence and the quantities in which it is found play an

integral role in soil stability. When analyzing a soil sample for

soil type, as we will discuss later in Chapter 4, one must pay

close attention to the effects of water accumulation in and

around the excavation.

Water can be found in a number of locations on an

excavation site. The first would be surface water such as in

streams, lakes and run-off from rain and snow melt.

Depending on the soil type, this may or may not have an

impact on an excavation. The relative position of the

excavation to the surface water will also have an impact. In a

soil where water permeates quickly, such as gravel or sand,

an excavation in and around surface water will probably be

saturated and the stability of the soil will be inherently weak.

In less permeable soils, such as clay, the soil conditions may

be more suitable for a safe excavation. However, even

though the soil is less permeable, the soil may still be

saturated to the point where stability is affected (Mickle,


The second type of water is subsurface water,

including water tables and perched water tables. The surface

of the ground water is defined as the water table (Mickle,

2002). This water table raises and lowers, depending on the

moisture amounts that feed it; generally higher in the spring

and lower in the fall. This area of the soil is saturated,

meaning most or all of the voids between the soil particles

are full of water. A perched water table is a false water table.

This happens when a less permeable soil lies under a more

permeable soil, such as sand over clay. When water enters

the soil system from above, such as rain run off, the more

permeable soil allows the water to drain quickly, but when

the water hits the clay, it stops.

The excavation would be affected by removal of the

soil to or below this point. When excavating below this water

level of the sand and water would start to flow into the

excavation causing slope failure by the undermining action

of the water.

The following permeation chart gives an idea as to the

affect of groundwater on an excavation.

Table 4

Permeability of Different Soils

Clean gravel 10,000 feet / day

Clean sand, sand and gravel 100 feet / day

Fine sand 1 foot / day

Silt .1 foot / day

Silt and clay .0001 foot / day

Source: (Mickle, 2002, p. 4)

Where water may have a detrimental affect on soil

stability, it can also add apparent strength in the right

quantities. These different quantities are referred to as a

“three-phase soil system” (Mickle, 2002, p. 49). They can be

described as dry, damp and saturated. Using sand as an

example – when pouring dry sand into a pile, it flows down

the sides of the pile creating a natural angle similar to what

one might see in the bottom of an hour glass. However, if the

soil is dampened enough to where each of the grains of

sand are wet or damp and with no free water flowing

between the grains, the soil could now be formed into balls

that stand with no other visual support.

This bonding of soil particles happens from the

meniscus of water that bonds to the individual particles and

then to each other. This bond prevents the soil from flowing

and gives an “apparent strength to the soil” (Mickle, 2002, p.

60). Unfortunately, this bond is relatively weak and unstable.

A small amount of moisture added or removed, recreates the

examples from above.

A common method to create a more stable soil would

be the removal of the water. In certain soil types, the

removal of water can be done prior to excavation using well

points or sand points. These points are usually installed at

an elevation lower than the proposed excavation. Once

installed, they are attached to a header pipe that is

connected to a pump. This pump creates a vacuum inside

the header pipe great enough to draw the water up the point

system to a discharge line where it is directed away from the

excavation area.

The intent is to draw the groundwater in that area

down below the intended excavation so that when the

excavation begins, the soil stability will be greatly enhanced

and decrease the extent to which the excavation would be

affected. This however does not upgrade the soil

classification as defined by OSHA but creates a more stable


Other forms of water control can also be used such as

sump pumps, ditching, diking, ground freezing, chemical

stabilization (Mickle, 2002), compaction and soil substitution.

Whichever method is used, it must prevent workers entering

the excavation from endangerment of water accumulation.

Only when the water level is maintained and an appropriate

protective system is in place, can workers enter an

excavation where water is present or accumulating.

Stability of Adjacent Structures

At the beginning of Chapter 4, we looked at

examining the excavation site and defining the outer limits of

the excavation to determine what, if any, existing structures

might be affected by the excavation. To gain a better

understanding of stability of adjacent structures, we must

better understand what provides this stability.

Stability is provided by what is underneath our

structures, as in the case with foundations for a building. A

foundation wall sits atop a footing that is supported by the

underlying soil. As the weight of the building is applied

downward on the soil, it is distributed outward below the

footing. The weight of the footing is carried over a larger

area than the actual footing size; creating an angle of

support below and out from the footing.

If our excavation is running parallel and below the

footing and within the angle that supports this footing, we are

undermining the support structure. With the removal of the

soil from the excavation, the support system has been

affected which can lead to the failure of the footing. As the

weight of the building pushes down, with no side support for

the soil, the soil could be displaced and push out into your

excavation. If the affected area is small enough, the footing

may bridge the area of failure in which an observer in the

excavation might only see a small gap between the bottom

of the footing and the soil. If the area is large enough, deep

gaps can be observed.

The point of failure of the structure is dependent on a

number of factors all of which could have been addressed

had the contractor planned in advance for the conflict in the

excavation. Structural engineers design for these conflicts by

taking into account how much of the structure will be

undermined, what type of soil is under the structure, how

deep below the structure will the excavation go, how long it

will be opened to the effects of weather. Without a properly

designed and engineered support system the potential for

structural collapse is imminent.

Protection of Employees from Loose Rock and Soil

Excavations can pose dangers from many places. As

excavated material is removed from the excavation face,

loose material often falls from the bucket or rolls down the

face of the excavation just to hang up on a ledge created by

the digging process. This loose material can be removed by

scaling the face to produce a clean edge. Rocks and other

debris can also produce potential falling object hazards.

Anything that appears unstable should be removed from the


As the excavated material is removed and stock-piled

near the excavation, care should be taken to ensure a

distance of at least two feet is kept between the spoils and

the top edge of the excavation (Occupational Safety and

Health Administration, 2007). This process helps two fold by

ensuring that falling and rolling materials are stopped prior to

their entry into the excavation and because the surcharging

of the spoils pile also creates added pressure to the top

edge of the excavation, adding unneeded weight to a point

already make weak by the digging and removal of soil from

within the excavation.

Another form of protection from loose materials

comes from the use of manufactured trench boxes. Trench

box design is for protection of workers from caving materials

in the side wall of a trench. Since it would be an unfavorable

event to have caving material going over the top of a trench

box, the top edge should be set at least 18 inches higher

than sloped side walls of the trench (Occupational Safety

and Health Administration, 2007). This will be explained in

greater detail within “Requirements for Protective Systems.”

Excavation Inspections

Inspections are an ongoing process within and

outside of the excavation. Inspections are imperative before

anyone enters an excavation whether it is a first entry

immediately after the excavation is made or after hours,

days and or even weeks of being opened. Each inspection

must include a thorough evaluation of the protective system

(Safety Requirements, 2005).

For sloping, that it is intact with no changes and for

shoring that it is in good shape and only doing what it was

intended. An example of improper use would be utilizing

bracing to stack or store materials on.

You are also looking for other influences such as rain

or run-off that could cause a change in soil conditions. If a

dewatering system is being used, you must ensure the

system is working and keeping up with the water. For

excavations left open over night and more than four feet in

depth, an air test should be performed to ensure that no

hazardous atmospheres have accumulated in the


All of these inspections should again be done by a

competent person before work commences or before

anyone enters the excavation. As conditions change, the

competent person would have to evaluate the conditions and

reclassify the soil as warranted. Upon reclassification he/she

must have the authority to make the correction. If conditions

do not change through the day, the competent person would

not be required to tend the excavation at all times.

Fall Protection

In the event that people must cross over an

excavation by means of a walkway, an evaluation of the

crossing and the excavation should be done. For

excavations six feet or greater in depth, some form of fall

protection should be used.

For most applications, a walkway with guardrails that

adhere to the OSHA standard under subpart M, the fall

protection standard in construction, would be adequate; but

even excavations less than six feet deep could be a finable

offence under the “general duty clause.” This clause states

that “the employer shall provide to each of their employees a

workplace free from recognized hazards” (Occupational

Safety and Health, 2007). If a trench that was dug two feet

wide and four feet deep was left unattended and people from

the worksite had to jump over the trench to access the

worksite, this recognized hazard could be a problem.

A walkway or cover sufficient to hold twice the weight

expected to travel over it should be installed or it should be

backfilled. Again, referring to OSHA requirements regulating

walkways, as well as, covers would need to be addressed.

Preliminary Decisions to the Selection of Protective Systems

In 2003, OSHA investigated 34 of the 53 deaths that

occurred in trenching and excavation sites. It was

determined that 71% of the 34 fatalities were caused by

cave-ins. And only 24% of the excavations were properly

employing a protective system which means 24 deaths

occurred due to lack of a protective system or improper use

of such. Another telling fact is that 72% of the fatalities

occurred in excavations less than nine feet deep and only

nine percent occurred deeper than 15 feet (Spike in Trench,

2004, p. 3); additionally in 78% of the incidents, no protective

system was utilized at all (Volpe, 2005)

When discussing these subjects with excavating

contractors and their employee’s, we soon find out the lack

of understanding as to the dangers of excavations at these

shallow depths. At a recent excavation safety class where

this author was teaching, a volunteer was asked to come to

the front of the class and lay down on the floor. After placing

a 94 pound bag of sand on his chest, the class was asked if

they knew what the weight of a cubic foot of soil weighed.

After less than two minutes, the volunteer gave up. After

removing the sack from his chest, we discussed the crushing

effect of only a few feet of sand. Weighing approximately

150 pounds per square foot, with its effect being cumulative,

the deeper you are buried the more weight that is applied to

the body.

These hazards are very real even in shallow trenches

only nine feet deep. The drive by contractors to get as much

footage in a day as possible can create these dangerous

conditions by taking short cuts to produce more footage.

To prevent these tragedies, OSHA has put in place

simple requirements for protective systems. A quick look into

these systems and their requirements will give us a better

understanding of what to use and where.

Before a protective system is selected, a number of

considerations must be accounted for. The first subject to

consider for protection type is depth of the excavation.

Excavations less than five feet in depth do not require any

form of protection as long as the competent person has

assessed the excavation and determined that it will stand on

its own (Occupational Safety and Health Administration,

2007). The next consideration is the soil type. Using the

appendixes under subpart P, we see several standards

organizations are referenced to for their standards on soil

analysis, including ASTM, Unified Soil Classification System,

USDA and NBS. These organizations use qualitative and

quantitative data to determine soil characteristics and type.

Soil Classification

In order to choose the correct protective system, we

must analyze the soil and surrounding conditions. Utilizing

recognized soil sampling and testing methods, we can

identify the soil classification. In the simplest form, we are

trying to determine if the soil is sand or clay. Using a

classification system of A through C, we are trying to

determine soil stability. A is the most stable while C is the

least stable (Peck, 2001).

For type A soil, it must be undistributed or not

previously excavated; it must be a cohesive material which

means it exhibits certain qualities such as plastic when moist

with strong shear qualities. This product is usually defined as

clay or mixtures of soil with high clay content (Occupational

Health and Safety Administration, 2007).

A type B soil can exhibit qualities similar to A, but not

as strong. Due to inadequate amounts of clay and a higher

percentage of sand and / or silt, OSHA (2007) defines it as

cohesive or a granular cohesionless soil. However, if the

excavation is in previously disturbed clay or submerged clay,

the physical properties appear similar to the A soil, but due

to the circumstances, it can only achieve B or even C status.

A type C is the least stable soil, therefore inherently

dangerous if not handled correctly. This is generally a sandy

soil that could contain amounts of gravel, silt and or clay;

and or a material that is saturated (Occupational Safety and

Health Administration, 2007).

There are other factors and conditions which may

affect the classification; OSHA lists these as visual and

manual tests that need to be performed to make a


Manual tests involve manipulating the soil by hand to

determine its characteristics. The visual tests help determine

soil type by influences around the excavation as well as the

properties the soil may exhibit.

A visual test that helps determine if a soil is cohesive

or non-cohesive is the reaction of the soil when placed in the

spoils pile. A material that stays in large pieces is possibly

cohesive. Before and after the excavation work commences,

we must look for signs of fissures or crack-like openings. A

crack or fissure may be caused by collapsing or expanding

soil types. During wet seasons, the soil absorbs the water

like a sponge causing the cracks to close. The cracks even

when closed, do not exhibit any type of cohesion. The

fractured planes will readily fail in an excavation. Cracks in

the side wall of the excavation show a separation of material

from the wall itself (Tschappet, 2003).

Another visual that must be addressed is the

likelihood of a layered excavation. It is very common to start

the excavation in one type of soil and as the dig progresses,

to run into other soil types before reaching the bottom of the

hole. These layered systems present a potential problem in

relation to the excavation wall. Changes in soils can produce

planes on which one soil can slide over another (Tschappet,

2003). These planes must be analyzed for their potential

problems. One of these potential problems is the stability

differences from one soil type to another. Another is the

angle in which the two materials meet. If the ratio of the

angle is greater than 4:1, or four horizontal to one vertical, in

what is referred to as a slope ratio, a potential slide action

can happen.

Figure 2

Sloping Layered Systems

Source: (Trenching and Excavation Safety, 2005, p.5)

In terms of stability differences, a weaker soil under a

more stable soil creates a hazardous condition.

Figure 3

Layered soils with varying strengths

(Trench and Excavation Safety, 2005, p.4)

If we address the layered conditions with sloping, we

must first classify the soil layers to determine the needed

slope. Looking at the next example of type C over type B, we

can slope our bottom soil type B at a 1:1 slope ratio, when

our slope reaches the type C, our slope ratio must change to

address the new material. Type C is sloped at a 1.5:1 ratio

Figure 4

Sloping Requirements for type C over type B soil

Source: (Occupational Safety and Health Administration,


When the types are inverted with a B soil over a C

soil, a new concept must be addressed. Utilizing the 1.5:1

slope ratio up to the B soil makes a stable base, if we were

to adjust to a 1:1 slope an overburden of weight is applied to

the type C below. This added weight can cause a failure of

the type C slope which would undermine the B above. Once

undermining occurs and the support for the B soil is lost, the

unsupported weight would fracture and slide into the

excavation. To prevent this over burdening, in our example,

the 1.5:1 slope must be carried through the upper layers

when we have a weaker soil below (Occupational Safety and

Health Administration, 2007).

The next visual test would be looking for signs of

water. Signs of water could be as obvious as surface water

from streams and lakes or subsurface water from the water

table. A saturated soil might show water seeping in from the

side walls, boiling up from the bottom of the excavation or in

some soil types exhibit only small changes from their dryer

phases (Tschappet, 1998).

Figure 5:

Water and Excavations

Source: (Trench and Excavation Safety, 2005. p.5)

Clay, when nearly saturated, holds the water tightly

and gives little visual indication as to the amount of water.

Another visual test would be to determine other

influences outside the excavation. Excavations involving

nearby traffic could be affected by the vibration. Construction

equipment can cause excavation collapse from the amount

of vibration as the equipment runs back and forth around the

excavation edge. This vibration can cause separation of soil

from the sides of the excavation when there is a possible

vibration issue, we must readjust our protection system. In

the case of sloped systems that classify as a type B soil, we

would adjust our slope to a 1.5:1 ratio. Later on in the

chapter, we will discuss protection types and why this

adjustment in soil type may cause a change in protection


Up to this point, we have addressed several visual

tests to determine soil type. Next we will look at manual tests

under the OSHA regulations for classification. Our first

manual test refers to the plasticity test. Plasticity refers to a

soil that can be molded by hand and not exhibit any

cracking. The type of soil we are testing would have the

consistency of clay. This soil sample allows a disturbed test

to be performed; meaning that you can adjust the properties

of the soil by adding water. The purpose of adding water is

to bring the sample to a nearly saturated state. If the soil

sample is too dry, you will not be able to form the soil as

needed. Once the sample is wet enough, roll into a ball

approximately one to two inches in diameter; next roll the

ball into a thin thread about 1/8 of an inch thick. If the thread

stays in two inch or larger sections, you would have a type B

soil. If the pieces broke apart any smaller, it would be

classified as a C soil (Peck, 2001).

Another plasticity test developed by the Department

of Agriculture involves a 2-3 inch diameter, disturbed

sample. Roll into a ¾ inch diameter cylinder, then press

between your thumb and pointer finger creating a “ribbon.” If

the sample stays in a long ribbon you may have a B soil

type, if it falls apart, it would probably be a C soil type.

Another disturbed sample used by some OSHA

compliance officers is the sedimentation test. It involves

taking a soil sample from the spoil pile and mixing and

cutting the sample until you have a representative sample to

perform your test. Using a straight-sided jar 6-8 inches in

height, put 2-3 inches of soil in the bottom, then put in 4-6

inches of water. Seal the top and shake vigorously until all

the soil particles are suspended in water. Have a stop watch

or a wrist watch available when you place the jar down. Start

your time and watch for the settlement of the particles.

Initially, the sand should settle to the bottom within the first

30 seconds; silt within the next 1-2 minutes and clay will take

several minutes. If the sand that settled out is equal to or

greater than 80%, the sample would be type C. If the

material was less than 70%, you could have a granular type

B soil. You must take multiple samples from each of the

represented soil types (Protocol for the Documentation of,


Table 5

Graph for the Determination of Soil Type

Source: (US Army Field Manual, 2008)

As with any test you perform, it is always a good idea

to document the findings so that in the event of an

inspection, one could justify their decisions (Protocol for the,


Our next manual test involves the dry strength test

(Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 2007). Out

of the spoils pile, locate a piece of soil approximately one

inch thick by about six inches square. Air dry the sample for

24 hours or dry by another means to achieve a dry sample. If

the sample exhibits any cracks or fissures, it would be a B or

C soil. If it does not have any cracks or fissures and is

relatively hard to break apart, it may be a type A soil. It is

recommended that if you think you have a type A soil to do

other tests to ensure classification.

The next test within OSHAs requirements is the

“Thumb Penetration” test. This test is based on ASTM’s

“Standard Recommended Practice for Description of Soils.”

The intent is to determine how readily the thumb can

penetrate a soil sample. This must be performed on an

undisturbed nearly saturated sample. In other words, the soil

cannot be manipulated by the addition of water. However,

the sample must be nearly saturated. Holding a piece of soil

pulled from the spoil pile, try to indent the piece with your

thumb. If it indents, but only under great effort, it could be a

type A soil, if it indents ½ to one inch a type B soil and easily

penetrated over an inch a type C soil (Peck, 2001).

Two other tests require instruments to determine

unconfined compressive strength. The term “unconfined”

means the material has been removed from the ground and

deposited in the spoils pile. It is not confined in a container

or the side walls of the trench. Compressive strength is the

soils ability to hold up to a pressure and not fail. When the

top end of the compressive strength is reached, the material

fails or is crushed.

The first instrument called a pocket penotrometer is a

gauge that is pressed into the sample. Again, the sample

must be undisturbed and nearly saturated. Quickly press the

penotrometer up to the indicator mark and pull back. Read

the penotrometer scale and record. A number of readings

should be taken throughout the spoils pile to ensure the

samples are a good representation of the excavation. Keep

in mind that soil layering may be involved and that each and

every layer must be analyzed (Protocol for the, 2000). Once

the mean average has been determined, it can be compared

to the OSHA requirements.

Type A soil ≤ 1.5 tons per square foot (tsf) =144 kPa

Type B soils .5-1.5 = 48-144 kPa

Type C soils > .5 tsf = 48 kPa

Source: (Occupational Safety and Health, 2007)

The second instrument is called a shear vane which

tests for shear strength. Shear strength is ½ the

compressive strength. So, once you have performed the

shear vane tests, you will have to multiply your final answer

by two.

Both of the tests, as discussed earlier, need to be

performed on an undisturbed nearly saturated soil. It is also

a good idea to remove gravel and or other foreign objects

such as sticks or other organic material from the surface. By

using a pocket knife, you can cut or shave into the sample to

give yourself a clean, flat surface to perform these tests

(Tschappet, 1998).

Protective Systems and Their Requirements

There are a number of different protective systems

utilized in excavations and we have definite limitations as to

when, what and where we can use certain protective

systems as was discussed early on in our site investigation.

The amount of space available for the excavation and the

spoils pile can limit our choices. In a type C soil, our slope

requirements may make our excavation so large that roads,

buildings and other structures may be affected. For trenching

applications, the number of crossing utilities can make it

impossible to fit a trench box in the excavation. Because of

these outside influences, pre-excavation planning must be

implemented in the early stages of planning a project. The

addition of shoring, lagging, soil solidification and other

engineered methods can increase the cost of the project or

potentially lower the cost of the project (Time, cost, 1998).

Let’s use, for example, a type C soil excavation ten

feet in depth, 100 feet in length with a required four foot

width at the base. The purpose of the excavation is to install

a sewer line from point A to point B; calculating the soil to be

removed in a sloping scenario would look like this.

4’ bucket

100’ length, 10’ depth, 15’ width

100 x 10 x 15 = 15,000 cu ft

100 x 10 x 4 = 4000 cu ft

15,000 + 4,000 = 19,000 cu ft = 704 cu. Yd.s

10’ 10’

15’ 4’ 15’

Source: (Time, Cost and Productivity Comparisons, 2007, p.

Now, let’s look an alternative protective method, a

trench box for the next example in the same trench.

100 ‘long, 10” deep, 4’ wide

100 x 10 x 4 = 4000 cu. Ft. = 148 cu. Yd.s

Figure 6



Trench Box

This example would require 1/5 the excavated material

meaning a much smaller overall footprint on the project, less

spoil, less backfilling, less compaction time and much

quicker installation time.

We have discussed two of the common methods of

excavation protection, including timber shoring, hydraulic

shoring and screw jacks. Charts within OSHAs Subpart P

give us sizing and spacing for each of the types. However,

great care must go into the proper selection of each of these

types. The use of each of these is as important as the

selection. On sloping applications ensure adequate sloping

for each slope type, watch for loose material on the sides of

the slopes as well as the top of the slope, control water

within the excavation to prevent slope failure, do not allow

people on the slopes above exposed workers below, ensure

employee protection by having a well-trained and

experienced competent person to evaluate the site

conditions and to classify or reclassify the soil when

necessary (Henderson, 2003).

On shoring applications, ensure the system design is

adequate for site conditions. The different trench box

designs vary greatly, therefore, reading and understanding

the manufacturers tabulated data sheets are very important.

These boxes need to be installed within two feet of the

lowest point of the excavation for the purpose of protecting

from loss of soil from underneath and behind the box

(Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 2007). In

some soil conditions, such as saturated sand, the shield will

need to extend to the bottom of the excavation to prevent

loss of soil.

If the top of the trench box does not reach the top of

the excavation, sloping must be performed on the soil for the

remainder of the depth. However, due to the potential that

rolling material may come down the slope, a minimum of 18”

of box should extend above the bottom of the slope

(Occupational Safety and Health, 2007). The slope ratio for

the portion above the shield shall be determined using the

classification system earlier discussed.

For deeper applications, manufacturers have

designed many trench boxes for stacking (Trench Boxes,

2004). However, make sure that the data sheets are referred

to for depth consideration. Each shield has limitations based

on the type of soil as well as the depth. Once the shields are

in place and employees must enter, they must use an

appropriate method of access and egress.

Whatever method used the employee must be

protected at all times. The use of a ladder would require its

installation in the trench box. Once in the box, the employee

is protected, however, when coming back out the excavation

the employee may be exposed to a different hazard. Once

on top of the box, the employee must step out away from the

box. In the event that the box top is even with the excavation

top, it may only be a small step to the surface. However, if

that surface is not supported, it could potentially cave in

down between the side wall of the excavation and the box

wall. We would need to protect that step area. Some

contractors have addressed this problem by installing

walkways which are attached to the top of their trench boxes

and extend whatever the distance may be to a safe location

away from the trench edge.

Each of the remaining excavation protection methods

has the same or similar requirements for use and each are

outlined within the OSHA standard.

Tables for maximum slopes, allowable bending strengths,

sizing and spacing of time shoring, members, hydraulic

shoring spacing and a flow chart for selection of protective

systems can all be found in the appendixes of Subpart P.

Chapter 5


Prior to the passage of the OSHA act thousands of

workers were perishing in the workplace. Since enactment,

the numbers do not show adequate improvement.

Sometimes accidents in the public eye cause knee jerk

reactions which cause the regulators to change the laws; but

the affects afterwards are not always as intended. Over the

years, the OSHA standards in construction related to

excavations have changed and the number of workers in the

workforce has increased exponentially, but the number of

serious injuries and deaths seem to remain a constant.

While OSHA has increased inspections on these

sites and the number and amounts of fines have also

increased, the numbers of injuries remain the same. Does

the system in place work? Is OSHA not getting the word out?

It would appear that the groups most affected would want to

get the word out; and many trade organizations have

attempted exactly that; they have made strides with their

people through training and information campaigns.

The number of organized trade members getting hurt

relative to the overall industry is low. This does not bode well

for non-organized groups. Everyone working, whether in a

collective bargaining unit or not, deserves a safe work


Regulations were written with everyone in mind,

including the small mom and pop plumbing and excavation

contractors. With an economic impact of over $512 billion for

unintentional injuries; per capita that would equal $5,000 per

household to compensate for these losses (National Safety

Council, 2001). It is in our best interest to lower these

accident rates.


OSHA regulations can be cumbersome and hard to

interpret. Armed with this knowledge, locating outside

sources to help put a plan of action in place may be the best

place to start. The following are recommendations to ensure

excavation safety on worksites.

1) Companies can start by identifying someone in their

company that can devote the time necessary to develop a

comprehensive excavation safety plan. This written plan will outline

their company policies and requirements for their personnel on the

job. They must not forget to address excavation emergencies such

as cave-ins in their plan.

2) Identify the individuals that will be given the authority to

make corrective action on the excavation sites. They must possess

a high level of experience and knowledge and be capable of

identifying potentially hazardous conditions that exist or can be

predicted. If their level of training in OSHA regulations is lacking,

then utilize training providers that offer competent person training

for excavations or trenching and excavation safety. Additional

training in CPR, OSHA 10 and 30 hour courses would also be


3) Develop a comprehensive checklist of task specific hazards.

For excavation sites that would include all relevant rules as well as

associated rules that would pertain to the jobsite. If you have

performed a solid site inspection and included the relevant rules,

this checklist can be used as a daily trench log that documents

compliance and helps the competent persons to do their job more

effectively and efficiently.

4) Regular site safety inspections should be performed in

addition to competent person’s daily inspections. These regular

inspections can also be tied to the company’s incentive program.

With the incentive plan attached to the inspections, bonuses are

then based on the crew’s adjustment towards a culture of working

safely. A crew that thinks safe and works safe should reap the

benefits. On the other hand, the crew that regularly underperforms

and their safety inspections regularly exhibit deficiencies, should

receive some form of discipline.

When a company shows a consistently good safety

record they will see multiple benefits including lower workers

compensation costs, more bidding opportunities and a lower

turnover rate which benefits not just the employer, but their

employees as well.


With the ongoing injuries and deaths attributed to

excavation work, little will change unless the mind set of

those working in excavations change. Not that this is the

only thing to blame; with an understaffed Department of

Labor, the threat of a compliance officer from OSHA showing

up on the doorstep is highly unlikely. Even with OSHAs

focus on excavations the last couple years and their attempt

to make the standards more user friendly and with

consultation efforts to get the word out, little has been

accomplished in changing the culture on many sites.

More training than ever through their outreach

programs and through organizations such as the Operating

Engineers and the Construction Laborers has been

performed. Several associations such as the Associated

General Contractors and the National Utility Contractor

Association have also helped in this fight to ensure that the

contractor’s responsibilities are understood.


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Appendix A

Table 1

Physiological Effects of Oxygen Deprivation

21 Typical oxygen concentration

15.19 First sign of hypoxia

12.15 Impaired muscular coordination, perception

and judgment

8.11 Mental failure, unconsciousness, nausea,


6.8 Six minutes 50% probability of death; eight

minutes 100% probability of death

≤6 Coma in 40 seconds, convulsions, death

Source: (U.S. Chemical Safety and Investigation Board,


Appendix B

Table 2

Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S) Physiological Effects:

1-3 ppm Odor threshold (smells like rotten eggs)

10 ppm OSHA permissible exposure limit

(regulatory level that an exposed worker can work up to)

100 ppm OSHA ceiling limit (should not be

entered without appropriate respiratory


Source: (The Appropriate Method for, 1995)

Appendix C

Table 3

Relationship of parts per million and percentage by volume

Example: 1,000,000 ppm = 100% volume

100,000 ppm = 10% volume

10,000 ppm = 1% volume

1,000 ppm = .10% volume

100 ppm = .01% volume

10 ppm = .001% volume

Appendix D

Table 4

Permeability of Different Soils

Clean gravel 10,000 feet / day

Clean sand, sand and gravel 100 feet / day

Fine sand 1 foot / day

Silt .1 foot / day

Silt and clay .0001 foot / day

Source: (Mickle, J.L., 2002)

Appendix E

Table 5

Graph for the Determination of Soil Type

Source: (US Army Field Manual 5-410, 2008)