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OSHA updates program on trenching and excavation safety

OSHA has updated its National Emphasis Program on trenching and excavation for the first time since 1985, mainly as a response to the increase in worker injuries and fatalities. Pennsylvania workers should know that the private construction industry accounted for 104 out of the 130 fatalities in trenching and excavation between 2011 and 2016. Approximately 49 percent of those fatalities occurred between 2015 and 2016 alone.

The update requires that for 90 days following Oct. 1, 2018, all regional and area OSHA offices are to conduct outreach with employers so that the latter can comply with the trenching and excavation standards. The Compliance and Safety and Health Officers must conduct inspections on any open trench or excavation regardless of whether it violates the standards.

A Quick Card accompanying the National Emphasis Program has summarized the basic requirements for trench and excavation safety. Trenches must have a safe entrance and exit, have cave-in protection measures in place if they are 5 feet or deeper and be free of standing water and atmospheric hazards. Equipment and materials must be away from the edge.

Trench walls should be sloped or benched at an angle away from the excavation. Hydraulic supports made from aluminum can prevent soil movement, and trench boxes will prevent soil cave-ins. A competent individual should inspect all trenches.

Compliance with safety standards will not prevent all accidents, but injured workers might still be covered for their medical expenses and for two-thirds of their lost income thanks to the workers' compensation program. Unlike with a personal injury claim, workers do not need to prove anyone was at fault; they will, however, be waiving their right to sue their employer for the same incident. Since workers' comp claims can be denied and prompt an appeal, workers may want a lawyer with them for each step of the process.

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