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The Importance of Trench/Excavation Safety: A Conversation with Roco Rescue Chief Instructor Tim Robson

Thursday, February 14, 2019


Tim Robson’s involvement with trench rescue started in 1994 when his technical rescue team from the Albuquerque Fire Department responded to what the dispatcher called a trench event.

“When we arrived on the scene, no one was there other than a police officer and a grandmother,” Tim recalls. “She couldn’t find her grandson.”

A company doing trench work in front of her home had offered to pay the woman’s teenage grandson hourly to help them. The teenager was inside the trench when it collapsed.


“The company left, and they left him in the trench,” Tim explains. “Unfortunately, it was a fatality. When we found him, he had already succumbed.”

As a result of that experience, Tim understands firsthand the risks involved in trench work and the importance of trench safety. Now, Tim supervises Roco Rescue’s technical rescue teams across the globe and, as a Chief Instructor, leads training courses in – among other things – trench rescue.

Tim is presenting a course on “Managing Excavations” at the North Dakota Safety Council’s 46th Annual Safety & Health Conference later this month. We sat down to talk with Tim recently to find out more about trench safety and why it’s so important.

Roco Rescue: Good afternoon, Tim, and thank you for talking with us today about trench/excavation safety. Let’s start with the overarching question: How dangerous is trench work?

Tim:  Trenching/excavation is one of the major fatality-causing occupations in the U.S. right now, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of the 130 trench/excavation fatalities that occurred between 2001 and 2016, 80% of those occurred in the private construction industry.

What scares us even more is that the number of fatalities is trending up. In 2014, there were 13 fatalities in trench/excavation. In 2015, that number rose to 25. And in 2016, there were 36 fatalities. So nearly half of the fatalities that occurred over a fifteen-year period happened in 2015 and 2016. Despite the fact that the regulations have gotten stricter, the numbers are trending up.  


Roco Rescue: We’re going to touch on the OSHA regulations in a moment. First, please explain why the number of fatalities is trending upwards.

Tim: The increase in fatalities goes hand in hand with the uptick in employment and construction; as the economy improves, there’s more construction and, with that, more trenching and excavation.

In addition to more construction, there’s less space. As a country, we’re building more roads, more buildings, and more infrastructure but we have less physical space to do it in.

And in addition to doing more construction in less space, in our world, we have to do more with less. Ten years ago, there were six people working on a construction trenching job; today, there are 4, and that naturally lends itself to more safety violations.

Roco Rescue: What makes trenches so dangerous?

Tim: First, let me explain the difference between a trench and an excavation: an excavation is wider than it is deep, meaning there’s less chance of dirt collapsing because the vertical walls of the trench are sloping. If my wall slopes away from the bottom of the hole I dug, there’s less chance of that wall falling in.

A trench, on the other hand, is deeper than it is wide. If I have to dig a trench with a perfectly vertical wall, because there’s a road right next to where I’m digging the trench, I can almost guarantee a collapse.

To give readers an idea of the physics and mechanics involved when soil collapses, I often use this analogy: A typical collapse involves a couple of yards of dirt. A couple of yards of dirt collapsing into a 6-foot deep trench has the same force as a pickup truck moving 45 miles an hour. If you’re at the bottom of the trench and the soil falls in on you from 6 feet, you’re getting hit with the same amount of force as a pickup truck traveling 45 miles per hour.

When that force hits you, you can’t survive. And that’s just the force. There’s also the compression and blocked airways that the victim experiences. Every time you take a breath, the soil gets closer to your body so now it’s compressing you and you’re not able to expand your chest wall.

That’s why this is such a big concern for OSHA.

Roco Rescue: Let’s talk more about the OSHA regulations. What is OSHA doing to help reduce the number of fatalities caused by trench collapse?

Tim: Last year, OSHA put out a compliance letter urging the construction industry to improve the safety of their trenching and excavation operations.

OSHA requires that any time someone makes an excavation or trench in the ground as part of their occupation, they have to designate what’s called a competent person. That’s usually someone in a management or supervisory position who is tasked with “identifying existing and 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.”

Roco Rescue: Besides designating a competent person, what precautions can supervisors take at work sites to reduce trench injuries/fatalities, and what can workers do to keep themselves safe?


Tim: Construction businesses have to meet the OSHA requirements for trench and excavation safety. To make the trench safe takes more time, more manpower and more labor. Ultimately, safety costs money, which is a challenge for small business in particular.

But the implications for failing to meet the requirements comes with an even bigger cost. Worker safety notwithstanding, the Department of Labor and the Department of Justice now agree that if a fatality occurs on a job site due to a willful violation of an employer, it is now a criminal act.

However, workers are equally responsible for their safety. They are also accountable for their actions. If a trained worker willfully gets into that trench, knowing it’s unprotected, they’re just as culpable as the company that put them there.

In short, the employer’s responsibility is to make sure individuals are trained at work and the employee’s responsibility to understand and follow those requirements.

Roco Rescue: What are three things attendees at your upcoming course at the NDSC Annual Conference can expect to take away from your presentation?

Tim: First, don’t take trench and excavation lightly. There’s a risk that comes with saying, “We’ve always done it this way.”

Second, they’ll leave with an understanding of OSHA’s trench/excavation competent person requirements.

Third, they’ll understand the requirements of AHJ (the authority having jurisdiction), which is generally the host employer. The AHJ is the entity that must deem someone a competent person. As an instructor, I don’t have that authority. Taking my class doesn’t qualify someone as a competent person.

Roco Rescue: How will the course you’re giving at the NDSC Annual Conference differ from Roco Rescue’s training courses in trench rescue?

Tim: At the Roco Training Center, we offer open enrollment courses in trench rescue and can even do a private training based on a specific industry. Our courses teach how to construct a trench so that it won’t collapse and, if it does collapse because of some catastrophic event, teaches workers ways to protect themselves.

Both the courses at the Roco Training Center and my course at the NDSC Annual Conference are focused on compliance, but the course at the NDSC is geared toward a broader audience.

Roco Rescue: What’s your final piece of advice for trench workers, Tim?

Tim: It’s simple: until you know it’s safe, don’t get in the trench.

Roco Rescue: Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and expertise with us, Tim.

For more information about Roco Rescue’s open enrollment or private training courses in trench safety and trench competent person, check out our training options.


Tim Robson is a chief instructor and the New Mexico CSRT Director for Roco Rescue, Inc. As a chief instructor, he teaches a wide variety of technical rescue classes and has been instrumental in the development of our Trench & Structural Collapse Rescue programs. In his role as a CSRT Director, he leads our on-site rescue and safety services, from rescue stand-bys to confined space program management to leading safety meetings and the list goes on. Prior to joining Roco in 1996, he served in the US Marine Corps as a Rescue Diver/Swimmer, at the Albuquerque Fire Department, and as a Rescue Squad Officer for FEMA’s New Mexico Task Force 1, participating in several deployments for FEMA, including the Pentagon following the Sept. 11th attacks.

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Trench/Excavation Competent Person Training

Monday, October 15, 2018

If you are supervising an excavation/trench job or are signing off on a permit for excavation work…YOU NEED THIS CLASS!

This 8-hour course from Roco is intended for Owners, Supervisors, Managers, Operators, and Safety personnel who are required to oversee Excavation and Trench work.

OSHA has recently updated its National Emphasis Program (NEP) on preventing trenching and excavation collapses in response to a recent spike in trenching fatalities. According to a study by OSHA1, the primary reason trenches collapse is that they are not properly protected. Protective systems were properly employed in only 24% of the trench collapse fatalities. In the remainder, a protective system was either improperly used (24%), available but not in use (12%) or simply unavailable (64%).

Despite the fact that environmental conditions were a contributing factor in 68% of the fatalities, the Competent Person2 was not onsite when the fatality occurred 86% of the time.
Most of the time (65%) the employer (Competent Person’s responsibility) had not identified the soil type even though soil type is a factor in trench cave-ins.

Because of the extreme hazards involved, OSHA 29 CFR 1926.650 Subpart P (Excavations) requires at least one person be trained as a Competent Person for excavation sites, which includes trenching activities. Trenching and excavation compliance and safety is dependent on these specialized employees, and OSHA has recognized that a higher level of training and experience is required than a normal worker would possess. OSHA relies on the Competent Person for certain activities or safety procedures at a construction site such as design, daily inspections, and supervision.

Tasks performed by the Competent Person include:
• Monitoring water removal equipment and operations.3
• Inspecting excavations subject to runoff from heavy rains to determine need for suitable protection.4
• Determining cave-in potential and need for protective systems.5
• Examining damaged material or equipment used for protective systems.6
• Classifying soil, by both visual analysis and by testing, to determine appropriate protection; re-classifying, if necessary.7
• Determining the appropriate slope of an excavation to prevent collapse due to surcharge loads, operating equipment, adjacent structures, or traffic, and assuring that  such slope is achieved.8
• Designing structural ramps that are used solely by employees as a means of access or egress.9
• Authorizing immediate removal of employees from the hazardous area where evidence of possible cave-in, failure of protective systems, hazardous atmospheres, or other hazardous conditions exists.10

Course Topics Include:
• Scope, Application, and Definitions of OSHA 1926.650, 1926.651 & 1926.652
• Specific Requirements of an Excavation Competent Person
• Identifying Existing and Potential Hazards
• Soil Classification
• Protective Systems – Requirements, Options, Installation and Inspection
• Sloping and Benching – Requirements
• Aluminum Hydraulic and Timber Shoring
• Shoring Alternatives (Trench Boxes)
• Using Tabulated Data: OSHA, Manufacturer’s and Engineer’s Tabulated Data
• Protective Systems Selection
• Rescue Considerations

This Roco class is available as a privately scheduled event. To schedule, email us at info@RocoRescue.com or call 800-647-7626.

1 Results of OSHA’s 2003 investigation are still useful in understanding why trench fatalities occur and how they can be avoided.
2 Competent person is defined by OSHA “as an individual, designated by the employer, who is capable of identifying existing and predictable hazards in the surroundings or working conditions which are unsanitary, hazardous or dangerous to workers, and who is authorized to take prompt corrective measures to eliminate them.”

3 [29 CFR 1926.651(h)(2)]
4 [29 CFR 1926.651(h)(3)]
5 [29 CFR 1926.652(a)(1)]
6 [29 CFR 1926.652(d)(3)]
7 [29 CFR 1926 Subpart P Appendix A]
8 [29 CFR 1926 Subpart P Appendix B (c)(3)(iii)]
9 [29 CFR 1926.651(c)(1)(i)]
10 [29 CFR 1926.651(k)(2)]
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Fatal Trench Collapse Results in Severe Violator Status

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

An Ohio excavating company faces $202,201 in penalties and was placed in OSHA’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program1 after an employee suffered fatal injuries in a trench collapse. 

Inspectors found that the company was working in trenches up to 16-feet deep without adequate cave-in protection. The company failed to: use protective systems to prevent a cave-in; remove accumulating water; properly use ladders to enter and exit the trench; prevent employees from working beneath a suspended trench box; ensure employees wore hard hats; and make provisions for prompt medical attention in the event of injury.

“A trench can collapse in seconds, burying workers under the weight of thousands of pounds of soil,” said Ken Montgomery, OSHA Cincinnati Area Office Director. “This tragedy was preventable, and could have been avoided if the employer had installed required protective systems to prevent a trench cave-in.”

Here's a video showing multiple violations like the ones described here.

1OSHA's Severe Violator Enforcement Program (SVEP) concentrates resources on inspecting employers who have demonstrated indifference to their OSH Act obligations by committing willful, repeated, or failure-to-abate violations. Enforcement actions for severe violator cases include mandatory follow-up inspections, increased company/corporate awareness of OSHA enforcement, corporate-wide agreements, where appropriate, enhanced settlement provisions, and federal court enforcement under Section 11(b) of the OSH Act. In addition, this Instruction provides for nationwide referral procedures, which includes OSHA's State Plan States. This instruction replaces OSHA's Enhanced Enforcement Program (EEP).

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Is Your Competent Person a “Trench” Competent Person?

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

OSHA’s Agency Priority Goal for 2018 aims to reduce trenching and excavation hazards. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, excavation and trench-related fatalities in 2016 were nearly double the average of the previous five years. OSHA’s goal is to increase awareness of trenching hazards in construction, educate employers and workers on safe cave-in prevention solutions, and decrease the number of trench collapses.

OSHA plans to issue public service announcements, support the National Utility Contractors Association’s 2018 Trench Safety Stand Down, update online resources on trench safety, and work with other industry associations and public utility companies to create an effective public-private effort to save lives. OSHA’s trenching and excavation national emphasis program is also currently under revision. For more information on trench safety, visit OSHA’s safety health topics page.

Comments by Dennis O'Connell, Roco Director of Training & Chief Instructor

Over the past few years, Roco has made trench safety a priority goal by dedicating more than 15 articles on this website as well as a podcast to trench-related subjects in an attempt to increase awareness for trench safety and rescue just as OSHA is for 2018.

One area we have identified where facilities may be in violation is having personnel who are not “trench” competent persons sign off on trenches. Many times, the company representative is a “Confined Space Competent Person” or “Entry Supervisor,” and we are asking them to sign off that a trench shoring system is adequate when they have little or no training.

Just because you are competent person in one area does not mean you are a competent person in all of them. A confined space knowledge base is not the same as a trench knowledge base.

The OSHA Construction Standard Defines a Competent Person “as someone who is capable of identifying existing and 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.”

Key Points:
Can your competent person...

  • ·  Classify the soil type?
  • ·  Determine the appropriate protective system based on depth, width, and soil conditions?
  • ·  Assure that proper protective measures are in place?
  • ·  Perform atmospheric monitoring?
  • ·  Ensure the work site is safe for surcharge loads?
  • ·  Identify who is going to respond with trench rescue capabilities in an emergency?
    If you are unsure regarding any of these basic questions, you may need to look at the training your competent person and rescue team are getting. 
    For more information, visit our Roco Trench Rescue page to view the course description and 2018 training dates. Register today to learn more about trench safety and rescue operations.

Resource: OSHA Quick Takes
Photo credit: Underground Safety Equipment/NAXSA

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Manslaughter Charges Filed in Trench Death

Monday, January 15, 2018

Second-degree manslaughter charges have been filed against the owner of a Seattle construction company resulting from a 2016 trench fatality. This marks the first time a workplace fatality in Washington state has prompted a felony charge, according to the Washington Department of Labor & Industries.

On January 5, the company owner was charged by the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, which alleges criminal negligence in the January 2016 death of a worker, who died when the trench he was working in collapsed.

“The evidence shows an extraordinary level of negligence surrounding this dangerous worksite,” said Mindy Young, King County senior deputy prosecuting attorney.

The company was fined more than $50,000 and cited for multiple safety violations in 2016 after an investigation into the incident.

“There are times when a monetary penalty isn’t enough,” Washington L&I Director Joel Sacks said in a Jan. 8 press release. “This company knew what the safety risks and requirements were and ignored them. The felony charges show that employers can be held criminally accountable when the tragedy of a preventable workplace death or injury occurs.”

The owner also faces a gross misdemeanor charge for violating a labor safety regulation with death resulting. His arraignment is scheduled for Jan. 18.

Two workers are killed in trench collapses each month, according to OSHA. The agency states that a cubic yard of soil can weigh as much as 3,000 pounds.

Source: www.safetyandhealthmagazine.com

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