In the Trenches

March 1, 2018
Working in trenches are among the most dangerous work environments that utility workers and contractors can find themselves in. Here are four critical steps to prevent and reduce trench accidents, and help ensure that workers come home safely.
4 Tips for Preventing and Reducing Accidents

By Doug Riseden

Following standard operating procedures, such as using shoring to prevent trench cave-ins, is critical for ensuring worker safety.

Trenches are among the most dangerous work environments that utility workers and contractors encounter. I have spoken to hundreds of pipe repair professionals across the country about this issue, and do everything I can to ensure it’s taken seriously. While the threat of being killed can’t be understated, an injury that leaves a worker disabled can be nearly as devastating. The costs in terms of lost wages, medical expenses and home care are staggering, and can change lives forever.

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, there are an average of 54 deaths per year involving trench work and cave-ins in the U.S. alone, with more than 1,000 injured. The tragedy of these statistics is that many of these accidents are preventable by simply having the right people on site with the right equipment and knowledge. Here are four critical steps to prevent and reduce trench accidents, and help ensure that workers come home safely after working within trenches.

1. Don’t Take Shortcuts

Probably the simplest and most effective action to prevent trench accidents is to stop taking shortcuts and do what’s required to maintain safety. Sometimes installers won’t use a trench box, for example, because they’ll only be in the ditch for short time. At one job site, I heard a worker say it wasn’t a problem because “nothing’s happened yet.”

This kind of mentality is short-sighted and dangerous. Due to gravity and pressure on the walls of the ditch, a trench naturally wants to cave in. You might have gotten away with not having the proper equipment or safety standard operating procedures thus far, but that just means you could be getting closer to a time when you will have an accident.

Standard operating procedures need to be created and, more importantly, followed — every time without exception. These include making sure you have the tools you need, such as trench boxes, ladders, gas detectors and other equipment required for successful trench repair operations. These procedures must also include having a competent person on site who has the combination of training and on-the-job experience in soil analysis and protective systems (e.g., shoring, sloping and shielding) to properly oversee the safety of the operation.

A competent person, usually the crew leader, should evaluate the ditch prior to anyone entering it, and identify and evaluate hazards on a continuous basis throughout the job. Most critically important, a competent person must have the authority to correct any hazards to the point of shutting down an operation if necessary. Any employee should have the ability to stop a job for these same reasons or refuse to enter a job that they consider hazardous. This is not a popular decision sometimes but taking this kind of action should be acceptable within the context of maintaining a safe work environment.

2. Get the Proper Training

Before even setting foot in a trench, all workers should have received proper training to help them stay safe while working in a ditch. The National Safety Council, the U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and many private companies provide the kind of training that all workers need to have. These classes include shoring, ditch safety and training to have a competent person on work sites. It is also critical to stay current with certifications as required for each one.

When Time Is of the Essence

Using the right products can help minimize time in the ditch and increase worker safety. A new coupling from Krausz USA, for example, has a gasket that can be quickly and easily adjusted to fit a range of pipe ODs.

The HYMAX 2 Flip Gasket is the latest version of the HYMAX coupling that has two top-facing bolts, wide range and dynamic deflection of up to 4° on each end to reduce pipe damage. The flip gasket gives installers the flexibility to quickly adjust the width of the coupling’s gasket to accommodate different pipe ODs within the product range. If the gasket is too small, it can be flipped out to allow for more space. If the gasket is too big, it can be flipped back in to make the size smaller. Gasket removal mistakes are also eliminated because the gasket’s size can be adjusted as necessary without ripping out one of the gasket layers.

Another time-saving option can be used as a coupling or wrapped around pipe as a repair clamp. The HYMAX VERSA is an all-in-one stainless-steel product that can couple pipes by either cutting and reconnecting pipe, or wrapping the damaged section in one easy step. It offers versatile performance by connecting a wide variety of piping materials and diameters, and gives installers the flexibility to make repairs within a wide range of circumstances. WW

3. Establish Lines of Communication

It is vital to have good communication between crew members, local emergency services, media and residents. Before the job starts, supervisors should have a brief meeting to ensure all team members understand what will take place at the work site, what their roles are, and where they will be. Supervisors can draw attention to hazards, processes, equipment, tools, environment and materials to inform all workers of the on-site risks.

For large, planned projects make sure that other department heads, finance officers, affected residents and the media are all part of your meetings. Your willingness to make these stakeholders part of your project and future projects shows your professionalism and willingness to consider all parties impacted. Your city commissioners will be more willing to listen to future funding requests and approve projects based upon your past and ongoing performance. Residents appreciate being informed about changes in their neighborhood and how their tax dollars are being used. It’s smart business!

Be in touch with local emergency services to discuss the hazards involved with trench work and how they would respond to an emergency cave-in situation. It’s also critical to be in communication with the emergency dispatch service (e.g., 911) for your area. Explain what will be required from them to handle an emergency involving a confined space or trench entry, and the special services required within such an environment. You may want to sit down with the emergency services workers prior to any operation and discuss the hazards associated with trench operations. After obtaining details from emergency services, share this information with the installation crew, explain how rescue crews will respond and what workers can expect from them.

4. Use the Right Products

When making repairs in trenches, time is of the essence. The less time workers are in the ditch, the fewer the chances of something going wrong. Having the right product on hand to make the repair can make all the difference in completing the job quickly and safely. The critical factor is being prepared.

Make sure that you keep good records of pipes found in the ground each time a repair is made. With the correct information on pipe size and material, you can build your repair inventory and ensure you’ll be ready if an emergency arises. It’s important to choose reliable, large OD range repair couplings and repair clamps with large OD ranges that can transition from one type of pipe to another, making repairs faster and easier.

The four steps outlined above are critical for preventing and reducing trench accidents. At the end of the day, it’s up to us to create a safe working environment for installation crews. We must make every effort to do all that we can to ensure the job is done right, and workers go home safe and sound. WW

About the Author: Doug Riseden is the technical support manager for Krausz USA, the makers of HYMAX, and has worked in the public utility field for over 20 years. His extensive experience with water and wastewater repairs and operations includes working for municipalities and private contractors, and providing water services to the NATO-led security mission in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.