How Much is Excavation Safety Worth?

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Could your business afford a $40,000 fine? A Philadelphia plumbing company got hit for that much in April for excavation violations while installing a residential sewer line. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) violations included the lack of a protective system, no barrier for the spoil pile, inadequate training, failure to have a hazard communication program, and others. 

Three of the violations were repeat events, escalating the enforcement action and accounting for $36,960 in fines. Four were classified as serious, which added another $3,520 for a total of $40,480. That’s an expensive bill for shaving a few minutes off a job. 

The violations could also have resulted in serious harm, or death, for the workers. Imagine having to deal with that; the fines, civil liability, bad publicity — having to notify your worker’s family that they will never see their loved one again. 

Data doesn’t lie 

Two workers are killed every month, on average, in trench collapses in the U.S., according to OSHA. That’s why there are laws regulating trenching activity — and why OSHA has plenty of guidance to help you stay in compliance and protect workers from the risk of injury or death. 

Besides posing the greatest risk, cave-ins are the most common accident involving trenches. One cubic yard of soil weighs as much as a car (a 1-ton dump truck carries roughly five cubic yards). Other risks include falls, falling loads, accidents with moving equipment, underground utilities, and even hazardous atmospheres. 

Compliance assistance 

Any trench five feet or deeper requires a protective system: benching, sloping, shoring, or shielding. If the trench is less than five feet deep, a “competent person” could determine that a protective system is not needed. A competent person is one who has been trained in such things as soil classification, water content of the soil, and other matters that could pose a risk to trench integrity. 

Protective systems in trenches of 20 feet or greater must be designed by a registered professional engineer or be based on data prepared or approved by one. (A trench wider than 15 feet falls under excavation regulations.) 

Workers must also be provided safe access methods. Ladders, steps and ramps must be within 25 feet of all workers in any trench four feet or deeper. The regulations include several other provisions, such as regular inspection (by a competent person), keeping heavy equipment away from trenches, storing spoils at least two feet from the edge, atmospheric testing, and suspended/raised loads safety. 

While the responsibility for safety falls on the employer, workers are their own best protection. As an OSHA trench safety poster states, “An unprotected trench is an early grave.” 

The bottom line? Safety is always a good investment. It may slow you down a bit and it might add some expense, but doing it right means everyone goes home safely. 

For more information on OSHA guidelines, visit or


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