Performance of Risk Mitigation in Excavations

John Parker John Parker

Dir., Safety & Health/Risk Management – Vico Construction Corporation


Construction activities pose a plethora of challenges to many project stakeholders. From the design phase to contracting, insurance, legal, and statutory requirements, no one is immune from the inherent liability. Although each stakeholder has established responsibilities before the first shovelful of soil is overturned, all stakeholders are tasked with managing costs while meeting expected performance in both an organization’s management of safety and health risks. The premise is not to contain costs that create an impediment to compliance or profit; rather, it is predicated on effectively achieving the overall safety system management process that brings added value to all stakeholders. This study examines the research, regulations and efficacy of the management of risks associated with excavations for those individuals who are beginning their career in the safety profession with a focused emphasis on construction.

Since the early 1900s, construction work practices have evolved exponentially, and with these improvements one would expect working conditions and quality of work life to have advanced proportionally. Technological advances such as trench shields, soil classification, hydraulic and pneumatic capabilities have streamlined daily excavation work practices. The various types of machinery on the worksite, the materials in use and the specialized work practices have broadened the capabilities of today’s modern contractor. Nevertheless, these technological improvements have also contributed to an endless array of risks and hazards that continue to categorize construction activities as one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States. One of the most fundamentally advanced, but most dangerous construction work activities is excavation. Therefore, the focus will be centered on behavioral research, regulatory requirements and educational/awareness programs that assist contractors and safety professionals in developing an improved understanding of excavations and the importance of incorporating safety compliance into their ever exhaustive areas of responsibilities.


Before 1971, construction workers involved in excavations operated with little to no oversight and reinforcement in developing a safe and healthful worksite. With the passage of the Occupational Safety & Health Act (OSHA) in 1970, employers were tasked with achieving compliance with regulatory statutes which dramatically altered the dynamic of construction activities. This dynamic was initially recognized but not fully embraced by contractors until the late 1990s. Even today, with all the technological improvements in certain aspects of construction work, effective management strategies still seem to be the bellwether for containing costs while also improving the quality of work life for employees. While technological advances have decidedly made certain construction work tasks safer, the technology has also introduced even more dangerous hazards and habits to the job site.

According to the (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2008), 271 workers sustained fatal injuries as a result of trenching or excavation cave-ins from 2000 through 2006. National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health (2004) researchers also found that other trenching and excavation hazards during construction activities resulted in 488 deaths between 1992 and 2000, an average of 54 fatalities each year. While standards, regulations, and the efforts of contractors and others to promote a safe and healthful worksite are honorable, these initiatives become useless if the employees refuse to accept or comply with them.

For a group, or an individual, to adopt and execute safe work practices companies must convey to employees that injuries and fatalities in excavations are not only extremely costly in terms of workers compensation costs and claims, but they also contribute to litigation resulting in significant expenses. These expenses are never factored into the overall contract. Moreover, high accident/incidence rates can be attributed to the attitudes and behaviors of construction personnel and/or their leadership.

Many companies may present an expressed safety climate but overall possess a non-existent safety culture. In this view, individual positive attitudes concerning safety may be ideal, but collectively (groupthink) they are typically viewed with a negative opinion. Failure to implement and monitor safe work practices and procedures are another contributing factor indicative at many construction sites. Unfortunately, many workers decide not to engage (consciously or unconsciously) in recurring safety performance activities.

A common violative condition develops when employees (or their supervisors) focus more on production than they do on safety (Quinn, 2010). This situation positively rushes the worker and the project resulting in carelessness and misbehavior. Reinforce this attitude with a lack of supervisory leadership that emphasizes and fosters safety awareness and oversight, and the excavation (figuratively) just becomes much deeper, with limited opportunity for emergency egress.

Men performing excavationThere is nothing wrong with expecting and achieving production goals with minimal safety compliance, but very rarely are these two elements addressed simultaneously. However, if the supervisor modifies his communications and lends commensurate credence and vigorous oversight and enforcement to both elements, it will reinforce the impression that safety is as much of a priority as quality or productivity. Another function of supervision is to empower employees to achieve an organization’s objectives. Acknowledging the proprietary role of production personnel and involving them in decision-making processes in achieving expected results in production, safe work practices, and regulatory compliance can also ensure effective management participation.

Regulatory Requirements

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Subpart P, Excavations, 29 CFR 1926.650-652 addresses all excavations, including trenches. These standards were borne from preventable injuries and fatalities. The combination of and implementation of these individual requirements are designed for two purposes; ensuring safe and healthful work sites (employees) and reduced liability costs (employers). These standards are not a cure-all, for it is incumbent upon each contractor to ensure the appropriate measures are available and utilized to ensure a minimally accepted level of protection has been achieved. The minimal levels of protection needed and/or afforded are based upon the decisions of a Competent Person (CP) who has the training, experience and responsibility to identify, analyze and address conditions as they may reasonably be presented, and to institute corrective actions to mitigate anticipated hazards.

These following elements comprise the basic requirements of standard excavation work activity:

  • Approved protective systems designed by an engineer based on the variables that a contractor may encounter, which include sloping, shoring and/or the use of trench shields or other engineered protective devices.
  • Providing adequate support systems for adjacent structures such as shoring, bracing, or underpinning, to ensure the stability of all structures.
  • Providing acceptable methods and procedures for the protection of employees during the installation and removal of all protective systems.
  • Ensuring all materials and equipment are free from damage or defects, and are used and maintained according to manufacturer’s specifications.
  • Protecting employees from secondary hazards such as falling equipment and materials that might fall or roll into an excavation from the edge; removing loose soil or rock or installing barricades; and prohibiting employees from working under loads that are handled by lifting or digging equipment.
  • Protecting employees from working in excavations where water has accumulated unless adequate protections (sump pumps) have been installed.
  • Ensuring excavations greater than four feet in depth and/or excavations where oxygen deficiency or hazardous atmosphere exists are tested, corrected and monitored before an employee can enter the excavation.
  • Providing a safe access to, and egress from all excavations. The standard requires the CP to ensure adequate means of exit, such as ladders, steps, and ramps, at 25 foot intervals.

Even when all these elements are available or staged on the worksite, workers still neglect to utilize them to their full benefit. So, what factors contribute to worker disassociation with routine safe work practices and tasks? According to Mitropoulos, Cupido & Namboodri (2009, pgs 881-889) it is a behavioral concept known as “cognitive engineering”.

The cognitive engineering approach as proposed by Mitropoulos, et al (2009) argues work behaviors are based on a perception of balance between task difficulty and the internal influences on the work situation or task. In other words, the number of influences on work behavior (speed and shortcuts, etc.) is predicated by other factors and expectations such as production goals, increased workload, injury avoidance, etc.

Therefore, for employees to be fully cognizant of the resources required to perform certain tasks with a positive (and expected outcome) the work situation(s) and tasks have to be carefully assessed and clearly and consistently communicated to the employees to maintain effective control. When task demands exceed cognitive capabilities, the subconscious loss of control may result in adverse outcomes. To add insult to injury, younger employees that are hired are routinely inexperienced with their working environment and are not readily attuned to the terminology or worksite conditions, which are other contributive factors in most excavation accidents (Quinn, 2010). To address these anomalies, contractors must adopt numerous measures which will orient the employees to the respective work tasks and the actions required in addressing and mitigating preventable accidents.

Educational/Awareness Programs

The presence of a comprehensive company safety and health program is thoroughly warranted; however, communicating the policy/program continuously and reinforcing acceptable work behavior of supervisors and production personnel is paramount. The company’s safety and health program is a driving force that has to be established through demonstrative example. It is important that company officers embrace the company policies and programs, but it is also incumbent upon them to promote a positive safety climate, which is typically the precursor to a proactive safety culture. Supervisors must be held accountable for promoting safety throughout the entire workday, not just first thing in the morning or at the next tailgate safety meeting. Supervision is “the face” of the company and its respective safety policies and programs; therefore, what supervisors expect from their subordinates has to be reflective of his/her own personal actions and behavior. In this vein, the old adage “you reap what you sow” is clearly applicable.

According to Goetsch (2003), the most productive and successful methods for achieving optimum safety performance is through the active involvement of production personnel in the field. These individuals are typically more attuned to the idiosyncrasies of the jobsite, machinery and equipment. Involving employees in all phases of safety compliance and performance at the onset of the program and encouraging active participation through positive reinforcement will result in ownership behaviors and actions that, in time, become conditioned responses (second nature). Employees should also be empowered and authorized to take action when anomalies are presented or observed. Reinforcement of the employees’ empowerment should also be a visible effort. Employees typically respond positively to various forms of criticism from their peers rather than they do through supervision, so giving the employees the ability (or authority) to mitigate potential risks or hazards also allows the employee(s) the ability to save face when they themselves are counseled. This method of safety performance reinforcement typically reaps tremendous benefits.

Posting visible reminders throughout the jobsite, on equipment, company vehicles and through work notice and paychecks demonstrates that management is committed to safety and increases awareness. The formation of safety committees is another avenue of involving employees and receiving constructive feedback. Training workers in the basic components of “competent person” training adds another level of situational awareness to the work task. Incorporating safety briefings prior to the beginning of, and near the end of the workday to address any concerns or anomalies observed, and the delegation of corrective actions has been shown to produce enormous benefits in awareness and compliance. Incorporating these methods and practices will delineate commitment, responsibilities and expectations, which will result in proactive behaviors and task control. The continued and focused success of these training and empowerment techniques will undoubtedly result in fewer accidents, higher profitability and enhanced public image.


The studies and recommendations presented here are not the results of what one may call “rocket science.” The research conducted was based on federal, state and corporate governance, injury, and accident data. Nevertheless, the impediments in creating a sustainable excavation safety program are increasingly believed to be a result of failing to understand the complexities and anticipated anomalies of the work task.

Management commitment to ensuring the safety and health program is continuously and equitably promoted involving value oriented supervisory leadership and control, employee empowerment, education and ownership cannot be overstated. Each one of these tangible actions, when consistently applied, will speak volumes mere words can never attain.

One thought on “Performance of Risk Mitigation in Excavations

  1. It makes sense that excavation would be important to have done by professionals. I can see how it could be dangerous! That looks like something that could be really difficult to do without the right training.

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