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Trenching

Authors: Mickle, Jack L. in Major Sectors and Their Hazards, Ringen, Knut,Seegal, Jane L.,Weeks, James L., Editor, Encyclopedia of Occupational Health and Safety, Jeanne Mager Stellman, Editor-in-Chief. International Labor Organization, Geneva. © 2011.

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Trenches are confined spaces usually dug to bury utilities or to place footings. Trenches are normally deeper than they are wide, as measured at the bottom, and are usually less than 6 m deep; they are also known as shallow excavations. A confined space is defined as a space that is large enough for a worker to enter and perform work, has limited means of entry and exit, and is not designed for continuous occupancy. Several ladders should be provided to enable workers to escape the trench. Typically trenches are open only for minutes or hours. The walls of any trench will eventually collapse; it is merely a matter of time. Short-term apparent stability is a temptation for a contractor to send workers into a dangerous trench in hopes of rapid progress and financial gain. Death or serious injuries and mutilations can result. In addition to being exposed to the possibility of collapsing trench walls, workers in trenches, can be harmed or killed by engulfment in water or sewage, exposure to hazardous gases or reduced oxygen, falls, falling equipment or materials, contact with severed electrical cables and improper rescue. Cave-ins account for at least 2.5% of annual work-related deaths in the United States, for example. The average age of workers killed in trenches in the US is 33. Often a young person is trapped by a cave-in and other workers attempt a rescue. With failed rescue attempts, most of the dead are would-be rescuers. Emergency teams trained in trench rescue should be contacted immediately in the event of a cave-in. Routine inspections of the trench walls and worker protection systems are essential. Inspections should occur daily before the start of work and after any

. Following are descriptions of the hazards and how to prevent them. the presence of water and vibration from equipment or nearby sources affect the stability of trench walls. These soils are responsible for as many cave-in deaths as any other soil. Heavy loads must not be placed on the edge of the wall. Vehicles must not be permitted to approach too close to the sides of a trench. which can crush or suffocate workers. such as buildings or railroads. Trench walls may be weakened by activities outside but near a trench. because the trenching may undermine the structures and weaken the foundations. trench walls will stand vertically for short periods of time. Accumulation of water in a trench. regardless of depth. Previously excavated soils never regain their strength. Types of soil and environment Proper selection of a worker protection system depends on soil and environmental conditions. Cohesive soils contain a minimum of 35% clay and will not break when rolled into threads 50 mm long and 3 mm in diameter and held by one end.occurrence—such as rainstorms. The soil must be classified and the construction scene evaluated before an appropriate worker protection system is selected. Soils can be divided into two main groups: cohesive and granular. signals the most dangerous situation. because the soil appears stable and precautions often are not taken. Trench Wall Collapse The main cause of deaths related to trenching is collapsed trench walls. Soil strength. With cohesive soils. Competent engineering assistance should be sought in the planning stages. stop logs or soil berms should be in place to prevent vehicles from doing so. A project safety and health plan should address unique conditions and hazards related to the project. thus causing the structures and trench walls to collapse. Trenches should not be dug close to structures. vibration or broken pipes—that may increase hazards.

Greater distances between cross braces can be achieved by using wales (or walings) to hold the uprights in place (see figure 2). the width requirements of slopes often make this approach impracticable on construction sites. The slope of 1. but slopes range from 0. When submerged or dry. with braces in between (see figure 1). These soils exhibit apparent cohesion when wet (the sand-castle effect). Wales can be of wood or metal. the coarser granular soils will immediately collapse to a stable angle. depending on their particle angularity or roundness. Figure 1. the greater the apparent cohesion. including benching (sloping done in a series of steps). Braces can be of wood or of screw. the most cohesive soils. Tight sheeting prevents water from eroding and bringing soil particles into a trench. requires a wide opening at the top of a trench. they are used in clays. however. sand.5 horizontal: 1 vertical is set back 1. The angle of a slope depends on the soil and environment. Skip shoresconsist of vertical uprights and cross braces with soil arching between.5 horizontal: 1 vertical. Shores help prevent trench wall collapse by exerting outward forces on a trench wall.75 horizontal: 1 vertical to 1. A shoring system must always be kept tight against the soil to prevent collapse. metal or fibreglass. Close sheeting is used in granular and weaker cohesive soils. gravel or larger material. Shores consist of uprights on each side of a trench with cross braces in between .5 m on each side at the top for each meter of depth. 30 to 45°. hydraulic or pneumatic jacks. Even the slightest slope is beneficial. A shore consists of an upright on each side of a trench. the finer the particle. Sheeting can be made of wood. Worker protection Sloping prevents trench failure by removing the weight (of the soil) that can lead to trench instability. Tight sheeting is used when flowing or seeping water is encountered. Shores must be no more than 2 m apart from each other. steel trench sheets are common. Shoring can be used for all conditions. However.Granular soils consist of silt. Sloping. the trench walls are covered entirely with sheeting (see figure 3).

allowing greater distance between cross braces Figure 3. Close sheeting is used in granular soils . Wales hold uprights in place.Figure 2.

Shields. many other sizes are available. are large personal protective devices. Shields protect workers from trench wall collapse . they do not prevent trench wall collapse but protect workers who are inside. or trench boxes. Figure 4. Shields are generally made of steel or aluminium and their size commonly ranges from approximately 1 m to 3 m high and 2 to 7 m long. Shields may be stacked on top of each other (figure 4). Guard systems must be in place against hazardous movements of shields in the event of a trench wall collapse. One way is to backfill on both sides of a shield.

All utility pipes and other utility equipment need to be supported. manholes. Shield-shore units can be used as static shields or can act as a shore by hydraulically or mechanically exerting forces on the trench wall. swamps. The smaller units are particularly useful when repairing breaks in utility pipes in city streets. All trench atmospheres where abnormal conditions are present or suspected should be tested. Second.New products are available that combine the qualities of a shore and a shield. Cave-ins that break water mains or cause accumulations of water or sewage must be avoided. water valves that feed pipes into the trench should be closed. known utilities should be contacted before digging to learn where water (and other) pipes are located. chemical processors and other facilities that can release deadly gases or . fuel tanks. This is especially true around buried garbage. fire or explosion or toxic exposures. some devices are useable in particularly hazardous ground. vaults. Soil is then excavated from inside the shield. Drowning Several steps are recommended to prevent engulfment by water or sewage in a trench. First. Deadly Gases and Fumes and Insufficient Oxygen Harmful atmospheres can lead to worker death or injury resulting from a lack of oxygen. Massive units with shield panels can be forced into the ground by mechanical or hydraulic means.

Ventilation may correct an abnormal atmosphere. one source is the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards.6 m from the edge of a trench. crushing and suffocation. Workers must not be permitted to work under suspended loads or loads handled by digging equipment. flammability or explosibility must be no higher than 10% of the lower flammable or explosive limits (LFLs or LELs).fumes or deplete oxygen in the air. The spoil pile should be kept at least 0. Permit-entry procedures require full equipment and a three-person team: a supervisor. but monitoring must continue. Construction equipment exhausts must be dispersed. Second.5%. an attendant and an entrant. Sewers and similar spaces where the air is constantly changing usually require (or should require) a permit-entry procedure. All utilities should be marked prior to digging in order to prevent electrocution or severe burns caused by contact with live power lines. workers may enter. permissible exposure limits (PELs)). All other materials. Air quality should be determined with instruments from outside the trench. oxygen must be 19. Falls and Other Hazards Falls into and within trenches can be prevented by providing safe and frequent means for entering and exiting a trench. (In the US. Third. which gives. safe walkways or bridges where workers or equipment are permitted or required to cross over trenches and barriers adequate to stop other workers or bystanders or equipment from approaching a trench. This can be done by lowering a meter or its probe into the trench. a barrier should be provided that will prevent soil and rock material from rolling into the trench. First. If the atmosphere is normal. The air in trenches should be tested in the following order. such as pipes. must also be prevented from falling or rolling into a trench. levels of potentially toxic substances—such as hydrogen sulphide —should be compared with published information.5 to 23. Falling equipment or materials can cause death or injury through blows to the head and body. Equipment booms .

overhead lines must be grounded out or removed. Often. one death or severe injury in a trench is compounded by a poorly thought-out rescue attempt. These compounded tragedies can be prevented by following a safety and health plan. if necessary. Management should train and require workers to follow safe work practices and wear all necessary personal protective equipment.must not be operated near overhead power lines. Equipment such as air testing meters. water pumps and ventilators should be well-maintained. The victim and rescuers may become trapped and overcome by deadly gases. fumes or lack of oxygen. or mutilated by machines or rescue ropes. Back back to top . drowned. properly assembled and available on the job.