Seven considerations for keeping employees safe in the trenches
On May 10, 2018, James Rogers wrote in a post on Facebook that a 12-ft-deep sewer hole in which he was working caved in 10 minutes after he got out of it.
“Never again ain’t worth it,” Rogers wrote.
The Ohio pipe installer ended up not following his own advice. On June 15, just over a month later, Rogers tragically died after a trench he was in collapsed at a Lincoln Township, Ohio, construction site.
You may be wondering how this could happen, but think about it. This is how we usually do things. We know how to do jobs correctly, but we submit to our own laziness. We have everything we need to do things safely, but too often, we do not take the action required.
Here are seven critical actions we can take to ensure workers are safe in the trench and come home safely.
1. Guard Against Laziness
How many times have you failed to take the trench box to the work site? How many times have you taken the trench box to the site and then not used it? It is not just in the trench—have you ever entered a confined space without a retrieval device?
The reason these valuable tools are not used is simple: laziness. We know what is best and safe, but for the sake of saving time and ease of repair, we choose to sidestep our own safety and standard operating procedures (SOPs). It is not difficult to get the required training and equipment. In fact, it is required by law. You need to know the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) laws relating to working in the trench—when to have a ladder, when to use a trench box or shoring, and much more. It is your duty as a professional to be responsible for your own and others’ safety.
2. Implement & Follow SOPs
From my experience, about 90% of utilities across the U.S. do not have any SOPs for working in the trench. Operation standardization is a great way to ensure that all crews are following the same procedures to ensure safety every time a worker enters a trench.
Without these standards, crews are all left doing their own thing with no consistent application. For large utilities overseeing several crews, SOPs are especially important, as sharing information and procedures with everyone becomes more complicated. Your SOPs should cover everything from the planning stage of your operation all the way to the end of the project, including step-by-step instructions on how repairs should be made in the trench.
Here is a sample list of items your SOPs should include:
- How to secure ditches using trench boxes or shoring;
- How to lower repair parts into the ditch;
- Air testing and ventilation equipment;
- How and where to cut pipe;
- What type of saw or cutter to use; and
- Personal protective equipment (PPE) and ladders.
3. Have a Competent Person on Site
A competent person is someone who has the training and on-the-job experience that will enable them to evaluate jobsite conditions. He or she must be able to see potential hazards, and should run the worksite with the authority to shut it down if necessary. The competent person must perform an evaluation prior to anyone entering the trench, and continuously evaluate trench and jobsite conditions. Every single jobsite should always have a competent person present.
4. Ensure Proper Soil Classification
Soil classification is a large and technical topic that describes the various classes of soil and different ways to test for the soils’ cohesiveness. Every trench wants to cave in, and understanding the soil classification can help you understand the risks involved upon entry. No one wants to gloss over the importance of the topic, but for the sake of simplicity, assume that all soils are Class C—soil that has previously been disturbed. It is the most common condition that workers in the trench find themselves in, as other utilities have already been in the same area working. Take all precautions that Class C soil requires if there is any doubt about the soil classification of the trench.
5. Maintain Training
How is your training when it comes to working in the ditches? Do you train employees and keep current with training each year? Trench safety, confined spaces, competent person, first aid—these are all areas where all employees should be trained and for which they should attend refresher courses each year. These types of training are available through private organizations, such as rural water associations and American Water Works Assn. chapters, as well the National Safety Council, OSHA and private safety-related companies.
6. Encourage Strong Teamwork & Communication
Good communication is key to every successful operation. Supervisors and directors should be communicating with their emergency response centers and explaining the dangers they face when working in the trench or confined space. Take the time to explain every aspect of working in a trench to local response centers.
This is something that should be done as soon as possible if it has not been done already. Find out how first responders will react in case of an emergency, and what their capabilities are when responding to a trench cave-in. In all situations, make sure you take the time to listen—the other part of communication that is sometimes forgotten. After talking and listening, you will know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and what is needed and expected. Communication should be an ongoing discussion, just like training.
7. Have the Right Products on Hand
Make sure you are ready by having the right products on hand as the need for repairs arises. There is no worse feeling than not being prepared, letting down everyone in your operation and bringing a world of unneeded headaches upon yourself. Identify what you need for repairs and ensure that you have these products in stock. Hymax provides a range of repair products that are fully transitional, up to 70 in. in diameter to meet all needs.
Trench safety is an important subject and something that we should be teaching and learning about every day. At the end of the day, it is up to all of us working in trenches to be vigilant in having everything we need to be safe. By taking the steps listed above, we can ensure all workers go home safely at the end of the day.