RAPID CITY, SD ‒ Four days before Christmas in 2020, an excavation company’s owner was fixing an underground sewer line in Rapid City when the trench around him collapsed; his life ended under thousands of pounds of dirt.

About six months later, two other workers avoided disaster in separate trench incidents in Rapid City. One suffered a minor injury while buried in dirt up to his waist for several hours until rescued, and a second was removed from a narrow 8-foot trench that lacked cave-in protection. 

Trench collapses remain among the construction industry’s most dangerous hazards. From 2011 to 2016, trench collapses caused 130 deaths in the industry – all of them preventable if employers followed required safety measures.

“In recent months, we have seen an increase in trench-related inspections during this construction season, especially in Rapid City,” explained U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration Area Director Sheila Stanley in Sioux Falls. “In a matter of seconds, thousands of pounds of soil can bury workers and turn a trench into a death trap. We cannot overemphasize that employers must review safety measures and take necessary actions to prevent serious injuries or worse.”

Trenching and excavation industry employers must develop and implement safety procedures to protect their employees. Employers must also train employees on how to evaluate job sites for potentially hazardous situations and ensure subcontractors follow safety regulations.

OSHA has a national emphasis program on trenching and excavations. Trenching standards require that employers ensure the use of protective systems in trenches deeper than 5 feet, and soil and keep other materials at least 2 feet from the edge of a trench. In addition, the employer must ensure that a knowledgeable person inspects trenches, keeps it free of standing water and atmospheric hazards, and ensures a safe means for a worker to enter and exit exists.

The agency engages in outreach efforts with local and national partners to educate employers and workers about trench safety. In February 2021, OSHA, the South Dakota State University Engineering Extension Program and the South Dakota One Call Notification Board signed a two-year alliance focused on educating employees and employers about cave-ins, being struck-by heavy equipment, falling loads and vehicular traffic near excavation operations.

OSHA’s trenching and excavation webpage provides additional information on trenching hazards and solutions, including a safety video.


Learn more about OSHA.


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