WASHINGTON, D.C. / JARRELL, Texas (FOX 44) – Two local trench deaths are among those prompting the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to launch enhanced enforcement initiatives to protect workers from known industry hazards.

OSHA reports that in the first six months of 2022, 22 workers have fallen victim to hazards in trenching and excavation work – surpassing 15 in all of 2021.

To stress the dangers of disregarding federal workplace safety requirements for trenching and excavation work, OSHA enforcement staff will consider every available tool at the agency’s disposal. 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 its National Emphasis Program for excavations, OSHA compliance officers will perform more than 1,000 trench inspections nationwide – where they might stop by, and inspect, any excavation site during their daily duties.

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

OSHA says that trenching and excavation operations require protective systems and inspections before workers can enter. When employers fail to install trench protection systems or properly inspect the trench, workers are exposed to serious hazards – including risk of being buried under thousands of pounds of soil. By some estimates, a cubic yard of soil can weigh as much as 3,000 pounds – equal to that of a compact car.

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

Trenching standards require protective systems on trenches deeper than five feet and soil and other materials kept at least two feet from the edge of a trench. Additionally, trenches must be inspected by a knowledgeable person, be free of standing water and atmospheric hazards and have a safe means of entering and exiting prior to allowing a worker to enter.

OSHA’s On-Site Consultation Program, a free and confidential health and safety consulting program for small- and medium-sized businesses, will assist employers in developing strategic approaches for addressing trench-related illnesses and injuries in workplaces.

The agency also urges 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. 

OSHA’s trenching and excavation webpage provides additional information on trenching hazards and solutions, including a safety video.