New OSHA Enforcement and Oversight Measures Aim to Reverse the Rise of Trench-Related Fatalities

January-June 2022. Trenching deaths up by 47% compared to Jan-Dec 2021.

In the first six months of this year, 22 workers fell victim to the deadly hazards present in trenching and excavation work – surpassing 15 in all of 2021. 

Every one of these tragedies could have been prevented had employers complied with Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards. There simply is no excuse for ignoring safety requirements to prevent trench collapses and cave-ins, and leaving families, friends and co-workers to grieve when the solutions are so well-understood. 

In a matter of seconds, workers can be crushed and buried under thousands of pounds of soil and rocks in an unsafe trench. The alarming increase in the number of workers needlessly dying and suffering serious injuries in trenching incidents must be stopped. 

A recent incident in central Texas highlights the dangers of trenching and an impetus for OSHA’s action. On June 28, 2022, two workers, aged 20 and 39, suffered fatal injuries in Jarrell, Texas, when the unprotected trench of more than 20 feet deep collapsed on them as they worked. Trench shields, which could have saved their lives, sat unused beside the excavation. 

These actions will place additional emphasis on how agency officials evaluate penalties for trenching and excavation related incidents, including criminal referrals for federal or state prosecution to hold employers and others accountable when their actions or inactions kill workers or put their lives at risk. 

In keeping with our National Emphasis Program for excavations, OSHA compliance officers will perform more than 1,000 trench inspections nationwide where they may stop by, and inspect, any excavation site during their daily duties. 

Our agency is calling on all employers engaged in trenching and excavation activities to act immediately to ensure  required protections are fully in place every single time their employees step down into or work near a trench. 

States that operate their own Occupational Safety and Health plan have similar emphasis programs in place, and we encourage those states to consider additional measures, including criminal referrals for federal or state prosecution for trenching-related incidents. 

OSHA stands ready to assist any employer who needs help to comply with our trenching and excavation requirements. We will conduct outreach programs, including safety summits, in all our 10 regions to help ensure any employer who wants assistance gets it. The stakes are too important. 

We also urge workers to contact their local OSHA or state plan office, or call 800-321-OSHA, if their employer requires working in or beside trenches that are not sloped, shored, or shielded and are five or more feet in depth. 

Doug Parker is the assistant secretary of labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Follow OSHA on Twitter at @OSHA_DOL