Excavation and trenching are among the most hazardous operations in construction today, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. From dangerous cave-ins to potentially lethal strikes on utility lines, there’s an abundance of hazards involved in this line of work. That means it’s crucial for project teams to ensure high standards of excavation safety and safe digging practices in order to protect workers from serious physical harm.
As an expert construction team in Northeast Pennsylvania that places the highest priority on safety, we’re examining what’s really required to have adequate protections in place and mitigate the risk of excavation and digging hazards.
Understanding the Job Hazards
Digging and excavation work presents serious potential for harm to all workers involved. One of the first steps toward risk prevention and excavation safety is pinpointing the opportunities for danger in this type of setting.
Cave-ins pose the greatest risk and are more likely than some other excavation-related incidents to result in worker fatalities. In fact, one cubic yard of soil can weigh as much as a car, which means an unprotected trench can quickly become an early grave.
In addition to cave-in hazards, other safety risks associated with construction digging include falling loads, structure collapses, hazardous atmospheres and hazards from mobile equipment. There’s also the distinct danger of striking an electrical, gas or water line in the process, which may result in flooding, electrocution, fires, explosions, leaks or other harmful situations.
Prioritizing Preplanning & Preparation
It doesn’t matter how many excavation and digging jobs a construction team has performed in the past; it’s still essential to approach each and every new one with care and preparation. So many work site incidents are the direct result of inadequate planning.
Therefore, preplanning and preparation work to ensure excavation safety and safe digging practices include gathering as much information as possible about the job site and materials needed to perform the work safely and in compliance with OSHA standards. Following are some critical factors to be considered:
- Proximity and physical condition of nearby structures
- Soil classification
- Surface and groundwater
- Location of the water table
- Overhead and underground utilities
- Quantity of shoring or protective systems that may be required
- Fall protection needs
- Other equipment needs
This information can be obtained through job site studies, observations, test borings for soil type or conditions, and consultations with local officials and utility companies.
The planning process also involves calling 8-1-1, the federally designated call-before-you-dig phone number. Pennsylvania has its own requirements and specifications for digging, so teams working in this state should contact the Pennsylvania One Call System. Notification for excavation work must be made not less than 3 business days nor more than 10 business days prior to commencing excavation work. From there, any affected utility operators will be contacted to mark their buried lines with paint or flags, all of which must be respected throughout the course of the project.
Implementing Protective Systems & Safety Protocols
Protective systems are used on excavation and digging sites to prevent cave-ins. In some cases, the systems are well known and simple to use, while in others, a more complex process of designing the protective system must be employed. Designing a protective system requires consideration of many factors, such as soil classification, depth of cut, water content of soil, weather and climate, and other operations in the vicinity.
The construction company is free to choose the most practical design that will provide the necessary protections, but any system used must meet the required performance criteria. OSHA generally requires that employers protect workers from cave-ins by one or more of the following:
- Sloping and benching the sides of the excavation
- Supporting the sides of the excavation with shoring or trench boxes.
- Placing a shield between the side of the excavation and the work area
OSHA’s excavation standards describe various methods and approaches that can be used to design these protective systems, and there are requirements for safely installing, maintaining and removing them.
In addition to cave-ins, workers must be protected from additional hazards, such as those involving falling loads and mobile equipment. To ensure safety, it’s necessary for teams to have protocols like the following in place:
- Enforced practice of placing and keeping at least two feet from the edge any materials/equipment at risk of falling or rolling inside the excavation, and/or using a retaining device
- Warning system (barricades, hand or mechanical signals or stop logs) for mobile equipment operated adjacent to an excavation or approaching the edge
- Process of scaling to remove loose material, installing protective barricades at appropriate intervals or using other equivalent forms to protect against loose rock or soil that could fall or roll
- Work rules prohibiting workers from working on faces of sloped or benched excavations at levels above other workers unless the workers at the lower levels are adequately protected
- Work rules prohibiting workers from standing or working under loads being handled by lifting or digging equipment
- Requirement for workers to stand away from vehicles being loaded or unloaded
- Testing for atmospheric hazards such as low oxygen, hazardous fumes and toxic gases when workers are more than four feet deep
- Daily inspections conducted by designated competent persons to reinforce excavation safety and proactively address concerns
- Pervasive use of proper protective gear, including provisions like high-visibility vests, hard hats, eye protection, etc.
Applications for Potholing & Vacuum Excavation
When work crews don’t take care to execute potholing prior to digging, these projects pose serious risks to workers. Potholing is a practice that involves digging a series of very small test holes to identify subsurface pipes, lines and other obstructions. Without this most reliable way to locate and bypass crucial underground utilities, the wellbeing of excavation operators is endangered.
Over the last several decades, innovation in excavation practices has also enabled project teams to deploy much safer approaches, including that of vacuum excavation. This method leverages high-powered suction machines, connected with a high-pressure water source or air lance, to dig deep, precise underground holes, daylight below-surface utilities and remove associated debris. Vacuum excavation enables workers to dig safely, and with the least amount of damage or disruption to buried infrastructure.
Relying on Experienced, Trained Professionals
Above all, when it comes to ensuring a safe excavation or digging project in Northeastern PA, it’s vital to utilize the expertise of a knowledgeable and experienced construction team committed to the health and safety of its workers. They should be implementing OSHA 30 and Operator Qualification training for field workers, as well as show proof of meeting the most current levels of safety regulation and compliance.
By applying the excavation safety standards and safe digging practices mentioned above, a qualified team that places safety above all else is the best choice for protecting the people on the job.
Interested in safe digging for your next excavation project? Download our free brochure to learn more about our capabilities.