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Excavation safety

January 1, 2011

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According to OSHA, the fatality rate for excavation work is 112 percent higher than general construction. Performing difficult work, often with machinery and in confined spaces, can create a number of hazards.

The agency notes that excavation work is risky because the structures are unstable. Further, many excavations require workers to enter restricted spaces where additional hazards include oxygen depletion, exposure to toxic fumes and water accumulation. 

Every worksite should have at least one individual who is qualified to inspect conditions before work begins. This employee should have received training in soil analysis and use of protective systems, should be knowledgeable about OSHA requirements, and should have the authority to eliminate unsafe conditions where they exist.

Prior to any excavation work, a competent person should perform the following steps: 

  • Evaluate soil conditions and select the most appropriate type of protective system. Ensure they are constructed in accordance with standards. 
  • Contact utilities to locate any underground wires, and note any nearby structures that may interfere with the work or affect the choice of protective device selected. Determine if any traffic control measures need to be taken. 
  • Provide protection from water accumulation, if the risk exists. 
  • Regularly test for low oxygen, hazardous fume or toxic gases, particularly when gasoline-powered equipment is running or the dirt has become contaminated by leaking lines or storage tanks. Ensure workers have respiratory protection and adequate ventilation.  
  • Only keep excavations open the minimum amount of time required to complete the work.

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