Skip to main content
What is Trenching & Excavation

What is Trenching & Excavation

Trenching and excavation can be a big part of your construction project. They help you lay the foundation for whatever you’re going to build so that it can last for as many years as you intend.

But many people aren’t familiar with the intricacies of trenching or excavation. That’s why we’ve put together this article. It covers everything that you need to know about OSHA trenching and OSHA excavation so that you can make sure your project goes smoothly.

Let’s get started.

Understanding Trenching & Excavation

We can begin by defining the difference between trenching and excavation. Yes, there is a difference.

An excavation is a hole in the ground that came to be from the removal of material, whereas a trench is a specific type of excavation in which the hole is deeper than it is wide. Put another way, both trenches and excavations are holes. But trenches are a specific type of hole that must be deeper than it is wide.

These definitions are important because there are differences in both the construction processes and hazards associated with each kind of hole. We’ll dive into those more in the following sections.

Hazards of Trenching & Excavation

There are quite a few different hazards that exist when performing trenching and excavation. These can include:

  • Cave-ins that may injure or even trap workers
  • Passers-by falling into the holes
  • Rain and water accumulation
  • Release of toxic chemicals
  • Contact with buried utilities
  • Hazards related to moving machinery and materials handling

The level of risk associated with each of these outcomes can depend on the type of hole you’re creating. For example, cave-ins may be more of a concern with a deeper trench than they would be with a shallow excavation.

That being said, a good trenching and excavation safety plan will take all of these risks into consideration – regardless of how likely the team leader believes they are to occur.

Steps for a Proper Excavation

Excavations can be complicated and dangerous projects, so it’s important to take some time before beginning to evaluate the site and plan for worker safety.

This typically starts with a supervisor performing tasks like:

  • Identifying the soil type where the excavation or trench will be
  • Locating all buried utility lines
  • De-energizing overhead power lines if necessary
  • Look for nearby hazards, such as buildings or structures with foundations that may impact the trench
  • Test for hazardous gas
  • Procuring work permits
  • Putting together an emergency plan

After that, team leaders will likely need to install the correct protective system to ensure cave-ins don’t take place. The major options are sloping and installing a temporary protective structure. The best choice will depend on the nature of the project and the risks in the surrounding area.

When work begins, there will be some housekeeping that needs to be taken care of throughout the project in order to keep things safe and the team productive. This is a list of tasks that includes:

  • Moving excavated materials at least 3 feet away from the edge of the hole
  • Having pumps on hand to remove water if necessary
  • Securing the ladder at the base of the excavation or trench
  • Establishing traffic controls and ensuring they’re followed
  • Keeping the site marked off with fencing, flags, and other safeguards

Following these three steps give teams the best chances of achieving their trenching or excavation goals within their desired time frame and without experiencing any safety issues.

What NOT to DO During an Excavation

Whenever you’re working with large machinery and in confined spaces, accidents can occur. But if you educate your team on the best practices for avoiding these accidents, you give them a much better chance of safely completing the project.

With that in mind, here are some of the most important things NOT to do during an excavation:

  • Don’t enter into any unprotected trench that’s greater than 4 feet deep
  • Don’t begin digging before identifying and de-energizing utility lines
  • Don’t enter a trench until it’s been tested for hazardous gas
  • Don’t place excavated materials and sections of lumber and pipe within 3 feet of the hole
  • Don’t work under suspended loads
  • Don’t stand behind a vehicle that’s backing up

If you can really drill these guidelines into your team, then your project has a much better chance of getting completed without any major issues. You may even want to create a list of these kinds of rules and put it on signage around the excavation to ensure they aren’t forgotten.

Inspection Checklist for Trenching and Excavation Sites

Embarking on trenching and excavation projects requires a keen eye for detail and a commitment to safety. To aid in this endeavor, we’ve compiled a checklist to navigate the complexities of these operations, ensuring a smooth and secure project execution.

Pre-Excavation Preparation:

  • [ ] Site Assessment: Conduct a thorough review of the site for any potential hazards.
  • [ ] Utility Locating: Confirm all underground utility lines (gas, water, electrical) have been accurately located and marked.
  • [ ] Soil Analysis: Perform a soil analysis to determine the appropriate protective systems needed.
  • [ ] Plan Review: Ensure a detailed excavation plan is in place, highlighting the excavation’s depth, width, and length.

Safety Measures and Protective Systems:

  • [ ] Protective Systems Installation: Verify that sloping, shoring, or shielding systems are correctly installed as per the depth and soil type.
  • [ ] Safe Access and Egress: Check for safe means of entering and exiting the excavation, such as ladders or ramps, placed within 25 feet of all workers.
  • [ ] Hazardous Atmosphere Testing: Test for hazardous atmospheres, especially if the excavation is deeper than 4 feet.

During Excavation:

  • [ ] Daily Inspections: Ensure a trenching and excavations competent person conducts daily inspections of the excavation, protective systems, and surrounding areas for signs of potential cave-ins, collapses, or hazardous conditions.
  • [ ] Weather Precautions: Monitor weather reports for conditions that may affect trench safety, such as heavy rain or storms.
  • [ ] Material Storage: Ensure excavated material and equipment are at least 2 feet from the edge of the excavation.


  • [ ] Site Restoration: Confirm the excavation site is properly backfilled and compacted.
  • [ ] Equipment and Tools: Check that all equipment and tools are removed from the site upon completion of the excavation work.
  • [ ] Documentation: Update all project documentation, including inspection logs and incident reports, if applicable.

By meticulously following this checklist, you can significantly mitigate risks associated with trenching and excavation, safeguarding your team and ensuring compliance with safety regulations. Remember, a well-prepared site is the cornerstone of a successful and safe excavation project. Stay vigilant, stay informed, and prioritize safety above all.

FAQs on Trenching and Excavation Safety

We will now answer some FAQs on trenching and excavation safety,

Q: What exactly distinguishes trenching from excavation?

A: Trenching and excavation are often part of the same construction conversation, yet they have distinct definitions. Excavation is a broad term for any man-made cut, cavity, or depression in the earth’s surface, while trenching refers specifically to narrow excavations made below the surface that are deeper than they are wide. Understanding this distinction is pivotal for applying the correct safety protocols.

Q: How often should trench and excavation sites be inspected?

A: Safety first! Trenches and excavation sites require daily inspections at the very least. These inspections should be carried out by a competent person before the start of each shift, following any occurrence that could have affected the structural integrity, and after rainstorms or other hazardous conditions to ensure ongoing safety.

Q: What are the most crucial protective measures?

A: The protection trifecta includes sloping (cutting back the trench wall at an angle inclined away from the excavation), shoring (installing supports to prevent soil movement and cave-ins), and shielding (using trench boxes or other types of supports to safeguard against cave-ins). Selection among these depends on the excavation depth, soil composition, and environmental conditions.

Q: What are the consequences of not following OSHA’s standards?

A: OSHA’s penalties for violations have been adjusted for inflation as of January 15, 2024. The adjustments include $16,131 per violation for serious, other-than-serious, and posting requirements, $16,131 per day beyond the abatement date for failure to abate, and $161,323 per violation for willful or repeated violations.

How Can AOTC Help with Trenching & Excavation?

Your preparations for a trenching or excavation project are what define how it will go. If you take the time to investigate all potential hazards, come up with solutions for them, and train your team on those solutions, then you’re much likelier to have a successful project.

But this can all be challenging to do on your own. You may not have the built-in expertise necessary to truly manage all of your risks. That’s why it could make sense to hire a company like AOTC.

We specialize in compliance and safety training, such as excavation training, and consulting for industrial projects like this. We specialize in safety training and consulting for industrial projects like this. We can help you identify all of the potential risks associated with your upcoming job and come up with the best solutions for helping your team avoid them.

We can also help you with things like evaluating soil types and checking to verify that there aren’t any hazardous gasses or a lack of oxygen in the hole that you’ll be creating.

The bottom line is that your team may not be equipped to handle all of this with the level of precision that you need to in order to give your project the best chance of succeeding. And hiring a company like AOTC – whether it’s us or not – can help you solve that problem.


Can we send you our next blog post?