Do you ever enter in a trench as part of your drilling and construction work? Let’s talk about the alarming rise this year in trench-related deaths. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration recently announced that 22 workers died in trench-related deaths in the first six months of 2022, easily topping 15 for all of 2021. We spoke about this on a recent Driller Newscast, but it bears repeating.

In the most recent, June 28, 2022, fatalities, two Texas workers died when the 20-foot trench they entered collapsed. Trench shields sat unused beside the excavation.

“There simply is no excuse for ignoring safety requirements to prevent trench collapses and cave-ins, and leaving families, friends and co-workers to grieve when the solutions are so well-understood,” says Doug Parker, assistant secretary for occupational health and safety with OSHA.

First, a level-set. What’s a trench? Broadly speaking, if you dig a narrow hole 5 feet or more into the earth, we can call it a trench. To be specific:

OSHA defines an excavation as any man-made cut, cavity, trench, or depression in the Earth’s surface formed by earth removal. A trench is defined as a narrow excavation (in relation to its length) made below the surface of the ground. In general, the depth of a trench is greater than its width, but the width of a trench (measured at the bottom) is not greater than 15 feet (4.6 m).

The agency also excludes stable rock, so that leaves us with several soil classifications based on compressive strength.

Suppose you need to dig a trench deeper than 5 feet and send workers in. What do you do? (Let me remind folks that I work as a journalist not a civil or geotechnical engineer.) You start in the preplanning of the job. Have a competent person classify the soil and make recommendations. Consider shoring/protective systems, nearby traffic, underground utilities, overhead utilities, water table and fall protection. The list goes on. But it’s an important list and it can mitigate the risks of trench work for your crews.

What about the workers themselves? I urge anyone asked to enter a trench or excavation to educate themselves. Look for the safety measures that help ensure you come out when the work finishes. OSHA helpfully reminds workers: “one cubic yard of soil can weigh as much as a car.” That does make it real. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want a car to fall on me.

However, I prefer to think about it in different terms. Trenches have killed seven times as many people as alligators in 2022. You wouldn’t go near an alligator without a proper plan for ensuring your safety. Why wouldn’t you at least use the same care in approaching a trench?

What do you think? Tell us about your company’s trench safety plan. Have you ever witnessed a cave-in? Send an email to

Stay safe out there, drillers.

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