OSHA requirements are set by statute, standards and regulations. Our interpretation letters explain these requirements and how they apply to particular circumstances, but they cannot create additional employer obligations. This letter constitutes OSHA's interpretation of the requirements discussed. Note that our enforcement guidance may be affected by changes to OSHA rules. Also, from time to time we update our guidance in response to new information. To keep apprised of such developments, you can consult OSHA's website at http://www.osha.gov.

December 19, 2007 [Reviewed November 8, 2018]

Mr. Roger Stairs
1844 U.S. Highway 1
Littleton, ME 04730

Re: Whether it is permissible for an employee to remain in a trench box when materials are being lowered into it by a backhoe.

Dear Mr. Stairs:

This is in response to your correspondence dated October 27, 2006, submitted to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). We apologize for the long delay in responding.

We have paraphrased your question as follows:

Question: Is it permissible for a worker to stay in a trench box while a backhoe is lowering items, such as precast concrete pipe sections, into the trench?

Answer: 29 CFR 1926.651(e) requires employers to ensure no one is working under a load that is being handled by lifting or digging equipment. Specifically, it states:

No employee shall be permitted underneath loads handled by lifting or digging equipment. . . .

This part of 1926.651(e) addresses the hazard of such a load falling on an employee who is under it. 1 Therefore, under this provision, it is not permissible for an employee to be in a trench box underneath a load being lowered into the trench by a backhoe.

However, section 1926.651(e) does not address caught-in-between and lateral struck-by hazards that can be present when an employee is in a trench but not directly under a load. Often these hazards are present when a restricted space limits an employee's movement. Furthermore, this section does not address the hazard of the backhoe itself striking the employee. These hazards are recognized by the construction industry and can cause serious physical harm or death.

Section 5(a)(1) of the OSH Act ("General Duty clause") states that each employer:

shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.

Whether it would be permissible for an employee (who is not under the load) to remain in a trench box while a backhoe was lowering material such as a precast concrete pipe section into the trench box would depend on whether the employee's location subjects him/her to a struck-by or caught-in-between hazard. For example, an employee standing between the hoisting path and the trench box wall, typically, would be subject to both hazards. In contrast, if a long trench box (or a series of adjacent trench boxes) was being used, and the employee was standing far enough away from the equipment and hoisting path so that there was no struck-by or caught-in-between hazard, then the employee could remain in the trench box.2

Thank you for your interest in occupational safety and health. We hope you find this information helpful. OSHA requirements are set by statute, standards, and regulations. Our letters of interpretation do not create new or additional requirements but rather explain these requirements and how they apply to particular circumstances. This letter constitutes OSHA's interpretation of the requirements discussed. From time to time, letters are affected when the Agency updates a standard, a legal decision impacts a standard, or changes in technology affect the interpretation. To assure that you are using the correct information and guidance, please consult OSHA's website at https://www.osha.gov. If you have further questions, please feel free to contact the Directorate of Construction at (202) 693-2020.*


Steven F. Witt, Director
Directorate of Construction

*[This letter has been modified (non-substantive changes) on November 8, 2018, and reflects current OSHA regulations and policies.]

1 This provision has additional requirements that are not pertinent to your question (i.e., it also addresses situations in which a vehicle is being loaded or unloaded: "[e]mployees shall be required to stand away from any vehicle being loaded or unloaded to avoid being struck by any spillage or falling materials. . . ."). [ back to text ]

2 This assumes that the circumstances do not involve a situation in which it is reasonably foreseeable that the load could strike the trench box and cause the box to fail or move and strike the employee. [ back to text ]