Trench Safety: How Can You Protect Your Workers?

Working in an unprotected trench is dangerous. The walls can collapse suddenly and without warning. When this happens, workers do not have time to move out of the way. 

While a small amount of dirt may not seem dangerous, one square yard of dirt can weigh more than 3,000 pounds. This weighs the same as a compact car. This small amount of dirt is enough to fatally crush and suffocate workers. 

Injuries and deaths related to trench collapses continue to happen. From the years 2003 to 2017, there were a total of 373 trenching deaths. More than 80% of those deaths happened in the construction industry. Workers do not often survive trench collapses, but we can prevent them. 

Trench Safety Graphic

Preventing Trench Collapse


To prevent trench collapses, employers must plan before the job begins. Employers should: 

  • Assign and train a competent person. 
  • Call 811 to identify and mark underground utility lines. 
  • Dig a minimum of 5 feet away from utility lines. 
  • Evaluate the soil to determine its stability. 
  • Plan the job layout to identify safe locations for spoil piles and heavy equipment routes. 
  • Before the job starts, if the trench will be 5 feet or deeper, set up a protective system.
  • If the trench will be 20 feet or deeper, provide engineering protections. 
  • Have a traffic control plan and lane closure permits. 
  • Develop a trench emergency action plan. 
Slope It Shore It Sheild It

OSHA Standard 

The OSHA standard for excavations, including trenches, is 29 CFR* 1926 Subpart P. This standard describes the precautions needed for safe excavation work. OSHA requires that all excavations 5 feet deep or greater make use of one of the following protective system options: 

  • Sloping the ground 
  • Benching the ground 
  • Shoring the trench with supports (such as planking or hydraulic jacks) 
  • Shielding the trench (using a trench box) 

Trench Rescue Training 

Workers can take training to increase their knowledge, become a competent person or be trained in trench rescue. Some of the training available from UT Center for Industrial Services includes: 

  • Trench Rescue Operations and Technician Level 
  • OSHA #7410 Managing Excavation/Trenching Operations 
  • OSHA # 3015 Excavation, Trenching and Soil Mechanics Trench Safety / Excavation Competent Person training 
  • OSHA 10 & 30 hour Construction and General Industry 

We can offer these trainings on-site at your location, or you can register for a scheduled event listed on the UT CIS training calendar. Contact Dustin Housewright at for more information.

Tags Safety