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Construction Safety and Health
Outreach Program
U.S. Department of Labor
OSHA Office of Training and Education
May 1996



The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued its first Excavation and Trenching Standard in 1971 to protect workers from excavation hazards. Since then, OSHA has amended the standard several times to increase worker protection and to reduce the frequency and severity of excavation accidents and injuries. Despite these efforts, excavation-related accidents resulting in injuries and fatalities continue to occur.

To better assist excavation firms and contractors, OSHA completely updated the existing standard to simplify many of the existing provisions, add and clarify definitions, eliminate duplicate provisions and ambiguous language, and give employers added flexibility in providing protection for employees. The standard was effective as of March 5, 1990.

In addition, the standard provides several new appendices. One appendix provides a consistent method of soil classification. Others provide sloping and benching requirements, pictorial examples of shoring and shielding devices, timber tables, hydraulic shoring tables, and selection charts that provide a graphic summary of the requirements contained in the standard.

This discussion highlights the requirements in the updated standard for excavation and trenching operations, provides methods for protecting employees against cave-ins, and describes safe work practices for employees.


OSHA's revised rule applies to all open excavations made in the earth's surface, which includes trenches.

According to the OSHA construction safety and health standards, a trench is referred to as a narrow excavation made below the surface of the ground in which the depth is greater than the width-the width not exceeding 15 feet. An excavation is any man-made cut, cavity, trench, or depression in the earth's surface formed by earth removal. This can include excavations for anything from cellars to highways.


Planning for Safety

Many on-the-job accidents are a direct result of inadequate initial planning. Correcting mistakes in shoring and/or sloping after work has begun slows down the operation, adds to the cost, and increases the possibility of an excavation failure. The contractor should build safety into the pre-bid planning in the same way all other pre-bid factors are considered.

It is a good idea for contractors to develop safety checklists before preparing a bid, to make certain there is adequate information about the job site and all needed items are on hand.

These checklists should incorporate elements of the relevant OSHA standards as well as other information necessary for safe operations.

Before preparing a bid, these specific site conditions should be taken into account:

  • Traffic,
  • Nearness of structures and their conditions,
  • Soil,
  • Surface and ground water,
  • The water table,
  • Overhead and underground utilities, and
  • Weather.

These and other conditions can be determined by job site studies, observations, test borings for soil type or conditions, and consultations with local officials and utility companies.

Before any excavation actually begins, the standard requires the employer to determine the estimated location of utility installations-sewer, telephone, fuel, electric, water lines, or any other underground installations—that may be encountered during digging. Also, before starting the excavation, the contractor must contact the utility companies or owners involved and inform them, within established or customary local response times, of the proposed work. The contractor must also ask the utility companies or owners to find the exact location of the underground installations. If they cannot respond within 24 hours (unless the period required by state or local law is longer), or if they cannot find the exact location of the utility installations, the contractor may proceed with caution. To find the exact location of underground installations, workers must use safe and acceptable means. If underground installations are exposed, OSHA regulations also require that they be removed, protected or properly supported.

When all the necessary specific information about the job site is assembled, the contractor is ready to determine the amount, kind, and cost of the safety equipment needed. A careful inventory of the safety items on hand should be made before deciding what additional safety material must be acquired. No matter how many trenching, shoring and backfilling jobs have been done in the past, each job should be approached with the utmost care and preparation.

Before Beginning the Job

It is important, before beginning the job, for the contractor to establish and maintain a safety and health program for the work site that provides adequate systematic policies, procedures, and practices to protect employees from, and allow them to recognize, job-related safety and health hazards.

An effective program includes provisions for the systematic identification, evaluation, and prevention or control of general workplace hazards, specific job hazards, and potential hazards that may arise from foreseeable conditions. The program may be written or verbal but it should reflect the unique characteristics of the job site.

To help contractors develop an effective safety and health program, in 1989, OSHA issued recommended guidelines for the effective management and protection of worker safety and health. The complete original text of the nonmandatory guidelines is found in the Federal Register [54 FR (18):3904-3916, January 26, 1989].

A copy of the guidelines can be obtained from the OSHA Publications Office, U.S. Department of Labor, 200 Constitution Avenue, N.W., Room N-3101, Washington, D.C. 20210, or from the nearest OSHA Regional Office.

To be sure safety policies are implemented effectively, there must be cooperation among supervisors, employee groups, including unions, and individual employees. Each supervisor must understand the degree of responsibility and authority he or she holds in a particular area. For effective labor support, affected unions should be notified of construction plans and asked to cooperate.

It is also important, before beginning work, for employers to provide employees who are exposed to public vehicular traffic with warning vests or other suitable garments marked with or made of reflectorized or high-visibility material and ensure that they wear them. Workers must also be instructed to remove or neutralize surface encumbrances that may create a hazard.

In addition, no employee should operate a piece of equipment without first being properly trained to handle it and fully alerted to its potential hazards.

In the training and in the site safety and health program, it also is important to incorporate procedures for fast notification and investigation of accidents.

On-the-Job Evaluation

The standard requires that a competent person inspect, on a daily basis, excavations and the adjacent areas for possible cave-ins, failures of protective systems and equipment, hazardous atmospheres, or other hazardous conditions. If these conditions are encountered, exposed employees must be removed from the hazardous area until the necessary safety precautions have been taken. Inspections are also required after natural (e.g., heavy rains) or man-made events such as blasting that may increase the potential for hazards.

Larger and more complex operations should have a full-time safety official who makes recommendations to improve the implementation of the safety plan. In a smaller operation, the safety official may be part-time and usually will be a supervisor.

Supervisors are the contractor's representatives on the job. Supervisors should conduct inspections, investigate accidents, and anticipate hazards. They should ensure that employees receive on-the-job safety and health training. They should also review and strengthen overall safety and health precautions to guard against potential hazards, get the necessary worker cooperation in safety matters, and make frequent reports to the contractor.

It is important that managers and supervisors set the example for safety at the job site. It is essential that when visiting the job site, all managers, regardless of status, wear the prescribed personal protective equipment such as safety shoes, safety glasses, hard hats, and other necessary gear (see CFR 1926.100 and 102).

Employees must also take an active role in job safety. The contractor and supervisor should make certain that workers have been properly trained in the use and fit of the prescribed protective gear and equipment, that they are wearing and using the equipment correctly, and that they are using safe work practices.

Cave-Ins and Protective Support Systems

Support Systems

Excavation workers are exposed to many hazards, but the chief hazard is danger of cave-ins. OSHA requires that in all excavations employees exposed to potential cave-ins must be protected by sloping, or benching the sides of the excavation; supporting the sides of the excavation, or placing a shield between the side of the excavation and the work area.

Designing a protective system can be complex because of the number of factors involved-soil classification, depth of cut, water content of soil, changes due to weather and climate, or other operations in the vicinity. The standard, however, provides several different methods and approaches (four for sloping and four for shoring, including the use of shields)1 for designing protective systems that can be used to provide the required level of protection against cave-ins.

One method of ensuring the safety and health of workers in an excavation is to slope the sides to an angle not steeper than one and one-half horizontal to one vertical (34 degrees measured from the horizontal). These slopes must be excavated to form configurations that are in accordance with those for Type C soil found in Appendix B of the standard. A slope of this gradation or less is considered safe for any type of soil (see Figure 1).

Excavations Made In Type C Soil

Figure 1. Excavations Made in Type C Soil

All simple slope excavations 20 feet or less in depth shall have a maximum allowable slope of 1 1/2:1.

A second design method, which can be applied for both sloping and shoring, involves using tabulated data, such as tables and charts, approved by a registered professional engineer. These data must be in writing and must include sufficient explanatory information to enable the user to make a selection, including the criteria for determining the selection and the limits on the use of the data.

At least one copy of the information, including the identity of the registered professional engineer who approved the data, must be kept at the worksite during construction of the protective system. Upon completion of the system, the data may be stored away from the job site, but a copy must be made available, upon request, to the Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA.

Contractors also may use a trench box or shield that is either designed or approved by a registered professional engineer or is based on tabulated data prepared or approved by a registered professional engineer. Timber, aluminum, or other suitable materials may also be used. OSHA standards permit the use of a trench shield (also known as a welder's hut) as long as the protection it provides is equal to or greater than the protection that would be provided by the appropriate shoring system (see Figure 2).

Trench Shields

Figure 2. Trench Shields

The employer is free to choose the most practical design approach for any particular circumstance. Once an approach has been selected, however, the required performance criteria must be met by that system.

The standard does not require the installation and use of a protective system when an excavation (1) is made entirely in stable rock, or (2) is less than 5 feet deep and a competent person has examined the ground and found no indication of a potential cave-in.

Safety Precautions

The standard requires the employer to provide support systems such as shoring, bracing, or underpinning to ensure the stability of adjacent structures such as buildings, walls, sidewalks or pavements.

The standard prohibits excavation below the level of the base or footing of any foundation or retaining wall unless (1) a support system such as underpinning is provided, (2) the excavation is in stable rock, or (3) a registered professional engineer determines that the structure is sufficiently removed from the excavation and that excavation will not pose a hazard to employees.

Excavations under sidewalks and pavements are also prohibited unless an appropriately designed support system is provided or another effective method is used.

Installation and Removal of Protective Systems

The standard requires the following procedures for the protection of employees when installing support systems:

  • Securely connect members of support systems,
  • Safely install support systems,
  • Never overload members of support systems, and
  • Install other structural members to carry loads imposed on the support system when temporary removal of individual members is necessary.

In addition, the standard permits excavation of 2 feet or less below the bottom of the members of a support or shield system of a trench if (1) the system is designed to resist the forces calculated for the full depth of the trench, and (2) there are no indications, while the trench is open, of a possible cave-in below the bottom of the support system. Also, the installation of support systems must be closely coordinated with the excavation of trenches.

As soon as work is completed, the excavation should be back-filled as the protective system is dismantled. After the excavation has been cleared, workers should slowly remove the protective system from the bottom up, taking care to release members slowly.

Materials and Equipment

The employer is responsible for the safe condition of materials and equipment used for protective systems. Defective and damaged materials and equipment can result in the failure of a protective system and cause excavation hazards.

To avoid possible failure of a protective system, the employer must ensure that (1) materials and equipment are free from damage or defects, (2) manufactured materials and equipment are used and maintained in a manner consistent with the recommendations of the manufacturer and in a way that will prevent employee exposure to hazards, and (3) while in operation, damaged materials and equipment are examined by a competent person to determine if they are suitable for continued use. If materials and equipment are not safe for use, they must be removed from service. These materials cannot be returned to service without the evaluation and approval of a registered professional engineer.

Other Hazards

Falls and Equipment

In addition to cave-in hazards and secondary hazards related to cave-ins, there are other hazards from which workers must be protected during excavation-related work. These hazards include exposure to falls, falling loads, and mobile equipment. To protect employees from these hazards, OSHA requires the employer to take the following precautions:

  • Keep materials or equipment that might fall or roll into an excavation at least 2 feet from the edge of excavations, or have retaining devices, or both.
  • Provide warning systems such as mobile equipment, barricades, hand or mechanical signals, or stop logs, to alert operators of the edge of an excavation. If possible, keep the grade away from the excavation.
  • Provide scaling to remove loose rock or soil or install protective barricades and other equivalent protection to protect employees against falling rock, soil, or materials.
  • Prohibit employees from working on faces of sloped or benched excavations at levels above other employees unless employees at lower levels are adequately protected from the hazard of falling, rolling, or sliding material or equipment.
  • Prohibit employees under loads that are handled by lifting or digging equipment. To avoid being struck by any spillage or falling materials, require employees to stand away from vehicles being loaded or unloaded. If cabs of vehicles provide adequate protection from falling loads during loading and unloading operations, the operators may remain in them.

Water Accumulation

The standard prohibits employees from working in excavations where water has accumulated or is accumulating unless adequate protection has been taken. If water removal equipment is used to control or prevent water from accumulating, the equipment and operations of the equipment must be monitored by a competent person to ensure proper use.

OSHA standards also require that diversion ditches, dikes, or other suitable means be used to prevent surface water from entering an excavation and to provide adequate drainage of the area adjacent to the excavation. Also, a competent person must inspect excavations subject to runoffs from heavy rains.

Hazardous Atmospheres

Under this provision, a competent person must test excavations greater than 4 feet in depth as well as ones where oxygen deficiency or a hazardous atmosphere exists or could reasonably be expected to exist, before an employee enters the excavation. If hazardous conditions exist, controls such as proper respiratory protection or ventilation must be provided. Also, controls used to reduce atmospheric contaminants to acceptable levels must be tested regularly.

Where adverse atmospheric conditions may exist or develop in an excavation, the employer also must provide and ensure that emergency rescue equipment, (e.g., breathing apparatus, a safety harness and line, basket stretcher, etc.) is readily available. This equipment must be attended when used.

When an employee enters bell-bottom pier holes and similar deep and confined footing excavations, the employee must wear a harness with a lifeline. The lifeline must be securely attached to the harness and must be separate from any line used to handle materials. Also, while the employee wearing the lifeline is in the excavation, an observer must be present to ensure that the lifeline is working properly and to maintain communication with the employee.

Access and Egress

Under the standard, the employer must provide safe access and egress to all excavations. According to OSHA regulations, when employees are required to be in trench excavations 4-feet deep or more, adequate means of exit, such as ladders, steps, ramps or other safe means of egress, must be provided and be within 25 feet of lateral travel. If structural ramps are used as a means of access or egress, they must be designed by a competent person if used for employee access or egress, or a competent person qualified in structural design if used by vehicles. Also, structural members used for ramps or runways must be uniform in thickness and joined in a manner to prevent tripping or displacement.


Trenching and excavation work presents serious risks to all workers involved. The greatest risk, and one of primary concern, is that of a cave-in. Furthermore, when cave-in accidents occur, they are much more likely to result in worker fatalities than other excavation-related accidents. Strict compliance, however, with all sections of the standard will prevent or greatly reduce the risk of cave-ins as well as other excavation-related accidents.

1. See Appendix F to the standard for a complete overview of all options.