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Trenches pose a grave threat to workers

With the return of warmer weather in Wisconsin, many workers will see a resumption in trenching activity. While this is essential for many jobs, from plumbing and other underground utilities to building foundations, it is essential that this work is carried out safely.

Trenches and any other excavations pose serious threats to any worker. However, trenches may be up to 15 feet wide and while most often go well below ground, trenches as shallow as five feet can pose a significant danger to workers. Proper site preparation is essential, as the moments after a cave-in and engulfment are too late to realize what should have been done.

Planning is necessary, as discovering dangerous conditions after work has commenced places pressure on a contractor or workers to skip proper safety procedures as everyone knows the additional time to remedy the safety risk will add to the expense and lower the profit of the job.

Sites can be very different, with some supporting the use of sloping and benching, while others will need more elaborate equipment to support the sides and shield workers in the trench. The soil type may also demand a more complex protective system designed to put together by an engineer.

OSHA regulations require the use of a "competent person" when making these assessments on a site. You don't want to be working for an employer who has been cited by OSHA for their fifth violation in five years.

Willful violations like this are signs that an employer does not care about the welfare of its workers and is willing to repeatedly place them at risk . In a recent instance, a plumbing contractor placed workers in a trench 6-foot deep without protection. Given that a cubic yard of soil could weigh as much as a car, a cave-in in such a trench would likely crush and suffocate any workers long before they could be extracted.

Source:, "Excavation company again exposes workers to the dangers of trench cave-ins while installing water line at Chicago home OSHA fines OG Plumbing $69K for 5th violation since 2012," Department of Labor, May 5, 2016

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