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Trench Deaths Are on Pace to Set a Record

LIUNA General President
Terry O’Sullivan

The construction industry is on pace for a record number of trench fatalities in 2022. Federal OSHA reported there were already 25 trench deaths as of mid-July, making it very likely we’ll surpass the previous high of 30 trench deaths set in 2013.

OSHA’s trenching and excavation standard requires protective systems like sloping, shoring or shielding once a trench reaches five feet deep. Federal OSHA has made reducing trench deaths a priority goal and is directing OSHA compliance officers accordingly.

“Trench collapses are usually caused by speed being prioritized over safety,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “Saving time on a project by cutting corners is never worth risking the safety and health of even one LIUNA member. Protecting trenches is the law because trench collapses are easily preventable, and taking that time saves lives.”

A Drastic Spike in Trench Fatalities

After staying relatively steady for years, trench-related deaths tripled between 2011 and 2016 as construction demand increased following the 2007-2009 recession. Many new companies entered the field, some without the experience and skills to perform the work safely.

During that time, most trench deaths were happening on small water and sewer repair jobs that often took only a day. Adding trench protection via sloping, shoring or shielding takes time – time that some contractors were not willing to take. So workers were asked to go into unprotected trenches, often with tragic results.

In the years following the 2011-2016 spike, surveys of construction workers and safety personnel found that 75 percent of respondents reported seeing no trench protection in place “frequently” or “occasionally.” About half of respondents had refused to enter an unsafe trench at some point in their career.

In 2022, many construction employers are continuing to take this same approach, and it’s continuing to cost workers their lives. With construction work expected to increase substantially due to funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, we must take action to protect the lives of LIUNA members and all construction workers.

How Can Construction Employers Prevent Trench Deaths?

  1. Protect trenches via sloping, shoring and shielding. OSHA’s trench standard requires protective systems once a trench reaches five feet deep. A collapse in a five foot deep trench can put so much pressure on a person’s chest that they can’t breathe. Follow the law and take the time to protect every trench that requires it, without exceptions.
  2. Make it clear workers should refuse to enter an unsafe trench. Construction employers must create an environment where it’s okay to stop work to make sure a trench is safe. Safety officers, foremen and supervisors play a critical role in prioritizing safety over production. No worker should ever enter an unprotected trench, even for just a minute.
  3. Have a competent person on site. OSHA’s trenching standard requires a competent person to inspect the trench at the start of each shift, after a rainstorm or any water intrusion event and when conditions change. A competent person is trained to identify existing and potential hazards and is authorized to take prompt action to correct them.
  4. Follow other trench requirements and best practices. Before digging, call 811 to locate all underground utilities. Ensure there’s a safe way to access and exit the trench, keep materials away from the edge of the trench and monitor the trench for standing water and other atmospheric hazards.

After registering on our website, LIUNA signatory contractors and other LIUNA affiliates can order any of the Fund’s publications on trench safety free of charge, including:

The LHSFNA is here to assist LIUNA signatory contractors in following OSHA’s regulations on trenching and protecting the lives of LIUNA members. Contact the Fund’s Occupational Safety & Health Division for more information.

[Nick Fox]

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