Trenching: How Deep is Too Deep?

Date First Published on SafetySmart Compliance: February 6th, 2014
Topics: Confined Spaces |

national emphasis program on trenching and excavation


SHA has cited Pan-Oceanic Engineering Co. Inc. with willful and repeat safety violations for failing to protect workers from trenching hazards at a Chicago job site. OSHA initiated the inspection after witnessing an employee working in an unprotected trench greater than 8 feet in depth. Proposed penalties total $105,600.

“It is unacceptable that Pan-Oceanic Engineering would allow workers to access an unprotected trench,” said Gary Anderson, OSHA’s area director in Calumet City. “Since 2003, this company has been cited multiple times for violations of trenching standards. Trenching hazards result in numerous fatalities and injuries every year. Companies who specialize in this type of work have a responsibility to protect their workers from fatalities.”

OSHA opened the inspection under the national emphasis program for trenching and excavation, which was implemented in the 1980s. Due to the willful and repeat violations found at the site, the company has been placed in the Severe Violator Enforcement Program.

OSHA issued one willful citation for failing to provide cave-in protection for employees in a trench. A willful violation is one committed with intentional, knowing or voluntary disregard for, or plain indifference to, employee safety and health.

Two repeat violations were cited for failing to post legible traffic signs at hazardous points in a construction zone and for allowing an employee to access an unsupported trench beneath a street. A repeat violation exists when an employer previously has been cited for the same or a similar violation of a standard, regulation, rule or order at any other facility in federal enforcement states within the last five years. Similar violations were cited at a job site in Chicago in May 2010.

Additionally, OSHA issued one serious citation to Pan-Oceanic Engineering Co. for allowing a worker to access a trench after deficiencies were found at the site. A serious violation occurs when there is substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known.

OSHA standards mandate that all excavations 5 feet or deeper be protected against collapse. Detailed information on trenching and excavation hazards is available at

OSHA’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program mandates targeted follow-up inspections to ensure compliance with the law and focuses on recalcitrant employers that endanger workers by committing willful, repeat or failure-to-abate violations. Under the program, OSHA may inspect any of the employer’s facilities or job sites.

The company has 15 business days from receipt of its citations and penalties to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA’s area director, or contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.