Will you recognize an unsafe trench if you see one?


If you are a construction worker in California, every shift you work will put your life on the line. Trenches are some of the most significant hazards on any construction site. If you are not familiar with the relevant safety standards, you might enter an unsafe trench without even realizing, and it can become your grave in the blink of an eye.

Remember, you have the right to refuse to do jobs that involve risking your life. Even if a trench seems safe and your task will only take a few minutes, you should check compliance with the safety regulations prescribed by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health.

Will you recognize an unsafe trench?

A designated competent person must design the necessary protective system for any trench with a depth between five and 19 feet. This involves examining and analyzing the composition of rock and soil. A registered engineer must design the safety systems for trenches with depths exceeding 20 feet. The competent person must also inspect the excavation before each shift to ensure none of the known hazards is present.

Utility line hazards

Before excavating any jobsite, the local utility companies must mark the positions of existing underground utility lines. If you do not see such markers, you might hit a gas or electricity line. You could be overcome with gas or suffer electrocution, both of which could be deadly.

Cave-in hazards

After analyzing the soil and rock compositions, the competent person must design a system to prevent the collapse of trench walls — except trenches dug in solid rock. One of the following methods can secure the walls:

  • Sloping: This method involves digging the trench walls slanting away from the trench at an angle to reduce the weight of the soil on the edge of the trench.
  • Shoring: This method consists of the placement of metal plates to keep the walls in place, often with added hydraulic systems to provide even pressure.
  • Shielding: This method involves placing a trench box, usually made of aluminum or steel, with four solid sides inside the trench.

If you want to be safe, you would be wise never to enter an unprotected trench.

Hazardous atmospheres

Before you enter a trench, make sure that the competent person has tested the trench for hazardous atmospheres. The bottom of the trench could lack oxygen or expose you to chemical fumes or toxic gases. If such hazards are present, your employer must provide respirators. Accumulation of water at the bottom of the trench is also hazardous.

Falling loads and fall hazards

The following steps can prevent workers and equipment from falling into the trench:

  • Safety signage and barriers on the perimeter of the trench can mark the edges.
  • Safety standards require a clear area of at least two feet around the edges of the trench to prevent excavated dirt or tools and equipment falling onto the workers below.
  • Unnecessary weight on the edges of the trench can compromise the stability of the walls.

Along with these hazards, your employer may not require you to work in a trench underneath a suspended load.

Mobile equipment

Even with barricades and warning signs, the views of construction vehicle operators might prevent them from seeing trenches. For this reason, flaggers must be present to warn operators of backhoe loaders, dump trucks and other mobile equipment when they approach the perimeters of trenches. It is also a good idea for all workers to stand clear of the trench during the loading and unloading of construction materials.

Workers’ compensation

The precautions you take will undoubtedly reduce your risks of being trapped in a trench. However, accidents can happen to anyone at any time. You might find comfort in knowing that the California workers’ compensation insurance program will cover your medical expenses and lost wages. An experienced workers’ compensation attorney can assist with the benefits claim navigation to make sure you receive maximum benefits under applicable laws.

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