This GBCA Safety Toolbox Talk discusses OSHA’s requirements for Trenching and Excavation. Click below to download the Toolbox Talk as a multi-page handout. See more toolbox talks about excavation and trenching HERE.

Trenching and Excavation: OSHA Requirements


Excavation and trenching are among the most hazardous construction operations. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) Excavation standards, 29 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 1926, Subpart P, contain requirements for excavation and trenching operations.

What do the OSHA Excavation standards cover, and how do they protect workers?

The standards apply to all open excavations made in the Earth’s surface, including trenches. Following the requirements of the standards will prevent or greatly reduce the risk of cave-ins and other excavation-related incidents.

What are the dangers of trenching and excavation operations?

Trenching and excavation work presents serious hazards to all workers involved. Cave-ins pose the greatest risk and are more likely than some other excavation-related incidents to result in worker fatalities. One cubic yard of soil can weigh as much as a car. An unprotected trench can be an early grave. Employers must ensure that workers enter trenches only after adequate protections are in place to address cave-in hazards. Other potential hazards associated with trenching work include falling loads, hazardous atmospheres, and hazards from mobile equipment.

What is the difference between an excavation and a trench?

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).

What types of protective systems can employers use to protect workers from cave-ins?

In many cases the type of protective system needed is well known and simple to use. At other times employers will undertake the more complex process of designing a protective system. Designing a protective system requires consideration of many factors, including: soil classification, depth of cut, water content of soil, weather and climate, and other operations in the vicinity. Employers are free to choose the most practical design that will provide the necessary protections. Any system used must meet the required performance criteria.

Why is preplanning important to excavation work?

No matter how many trenching, shoring, and backfilling jobs an employer has done in the past, it is important to approach each new job with care and preparation. Many on-the-job incidents result from inadequate initial planning. Waiting until after the work starts to correct mistakes in shoring or sloping slows down the operation, adds to the cost of the project, and makes a cave-in or other excavation failure more likely.

Remember to record the attendees of your toolbox talk!

Access GBCA’s full library of toolbox talks: