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Letter # 20071211-8130
Re: Removing ladders during trenching activities; compliance with 29 CFR 1926.651(c)(2)
Question: We have found that in certain circumstances, having a ladder in a trench box makes it difficult to provide our employees with enough room to work safely while installing underground drain, sewer, and water pipes. We would like to institute the following alternative procedure during those instances: (1) Once the employees have used the ladder to enter the trench box, the ladder will be removed and kept ready for use at the exit point just outside the box; (2) Two workers trained in the procedure will remain at the exit point just outside the box so that they can immediately lower the ladder in the event of an emergency or when the employees otherwise need to egress the trench; (3) The two workers outside the trench would be in uninterrupted communication with the workers inside the trench for the period during which the ladder has been removed.
A Job Hazard Analysis would be provided to all superintendents detailing the basic job steps, potential hazards, and this procedure in the event the ladder is removed, which includes training for two workers who will be responsible for removing the ladder, communicating with the worker(s) inside of the trench, and inserting the ladder in case of an emergency. Would this be in compliance with 29 CFR 1926.651(c)(2)?
Answer: Section 1926.651(c)(2) states:
Means of egress from trench excavations. A stairway, ladder, ramp or other safe means of egress shall be located in trench excavations that are 4 feet (1.22 m) or more in depth so as to require no more than 25 feet (7.62 m) of lateral travel for employees. [Italics in original, emphasis added]
Thus, §1926.651(c)(2) requires a safe means of egress to be located in trench excavations that are 4 feet (1.22 m) or more in depth. Please note that §1926.651(c)(2) does not exclusively require the use of ladders during trenching activities; a "stairway, ramp, or other safe means of egress" may be utilized. However, regardless of the means of egress employed, it must be available for use by the employees at all times.
In an emergency situation, the system you describe would involve a delay between the occurrence of the need, the recognition by the employees outside of the trench of that need, and the time it would take to lower the ladder. Also, the complexity of such a system makes it inherently more susceptible to failure than a simple requirement to have a ladder or similar means of egress in place in the trench. Consequently, the system you describe would not be considered an "other safe means of egress" under 1926.651(c)(2).
You indicate in your question that maintaining a ladder in the restricted space within the trench box in certain situations would create a greater hazard. However, in light of the necessity for immediate egress in the event of an emergency, we are unaware of safety problems that would be caused by the presence of the ladder that would pose a greater hazard than its absence.
Richard E. Fairfax, Acting Director
Directorate of Construction