Course 157 Excavation Safety: Basic

The Hazards

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Many hazards exist in this photo. Are they all addressed?

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. 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.

Excavation vs. Trench

Dig a hole in the ground and you've made an excavation. Excavations can be any size: wide, narrow, deep, or shallow.

A trench is a narrow excavation, not more than 15 feet wide at the bottom. If you install forms or other structures in an excavation that reduce its width to less than 15 feet, measured at the bottom, the excavation is also considered a trench.

  • If you work in an excavation that's five feet deep (or deeper) you must be protected from a cave-in.
  • If a competent person, who has training in soil analysis, determines that there's a potential for an excavation to cave-in, you must be protected regardless of its depth.

1. A _____ is not more than 15 feet wide at the bottom.

a. channel
b. ditch
c. excavation
d. trench

How Cave-ins Occur

Undisturbed soil stays in place because opposing horizontal and vertical forces are evenly balanced. When you create an excavation, you remove the soil that provides horizontal support. Soil will eventually move downward into the excavation. The longer the face (a side of the excavation) remains unsupported, the more likely it is to cave in.

Common Soil Problems

The terms soil and earth are commonly referred to in the excavation process to describe the naturally occurring materials uncovered on a project. Soil conditions vary from one site to the next. Soil may be loose or partially cemented, organic or inorganic. However, most soils can be referred to as a mixture or an accumulation of mineral grains that are not cemented together. An exception is hard rock, which remains firm after exposure to the elements.

Soil failure is defined as the collapse of part or all of an excavation wall. The most common soil failure is typically described as an unexpected settlement, or cave-in, of an excavation. Soil sliding is the most common factor leading to soil failure.

Proper planning and supervision can avoid the unsafe working conditions caused by soil sliding. Unless such safety precautions have been implemented, sliding soil failure can occur in all types of excavations (including sloped trenches and excavations with braced trench boxes).

Example of Soil Failure

2. In an excavation, what is the most common factor leading to soil failure?

a. Tension cracks
b. Soil sliding
c. Boiling
d. Prior disturbance

Soil Mechanics

A number of stresses and deformations can occur in an open cut or trench. For example, increases or decreases in moisture content can adversely affect the stability of a trench or excavation. The following diagrams show some of the more frequently identified causes of trench failure.

Tension Cracks

Tension cracks usually form at a horizontal distance of one-half to three-quarters times the depth of the trench, measured from the top of the vertical face of the trench.

Example of Sliding

Sliding or Sluffing

This may occur as a result of tension cracks.

Example of Sliding

3. Tension cracks usually form at a horizontal distance of _____.

a. twice the depth of the trench
b. one-half to three-quarters times the depth of the trench
c. within one foot of the vertical face of the trench
d. about twice the width or one-half the height of the trench

Heaving or Squeezing

Bottom heaving or squeezing is caused by the downward pressure created by the weight of adjoining soil. This pressure causes a bulge in the bottom of the cut, as illustrated below. Heaving and squeezing can occur even when shoring or shielding has been properly installed.

Example of Heaving


Boiling is evidenced by an upward water flow into the bottom of the cut. A high water table is one of the causes of boiling. Boiling produces a “quick” condition in the bottom of the cut and can occur even when shoring or trench boxes are used.

Example of Boiling

4. What causes bottom heaving or squeezing in a trench?

a. Downward pressure created by the weight of adjoining soil
b. Upward movement of the soil due to loss of downward pressure
c. A high water table causes upward movement of trench base
d. A lack of downward pressure from directly above
soil weight
Unit Weight of Soils
Click to Enlarge

Unit Weight of Soils

This refers to the weight of one unit of a particular soil. The weight of soil varies with type and moisture content. One cubic foot of soil can weigh from 110 pounds to 140 pounds or more, and one cubic meter (35.3 cubic feet) of soil can weigh more than 3,000 pounds.

A safe slope can be defined as the maximum angle of the edge wall or bank of an excavation at which sliding will not occur. The unique mixtures of the different types of soil (sand, clay, silt and rock) necessitate different safe slopes from one excavation site to the next.

There are other complicating factors that can result in sliding soil failures. During an excavation, visibly different layers of soil may be uncovered. Each of those layers may call for different safe slopes. It is essential to plan your excavation around the most gradual (rather than steepest) safe slope for all of the different soil types and layers encountered during the excavation.

Another complicating factor is that soil composition mixtures may vary significantly from one area of the project to another. During an excavation, as the soil composition changes, the safe slope for trench wall excavation also changes. Thus, across an excavation site, the slope of the bank may need to be different to provide a safe working environment.

5. One cubic foot of soil can weigh _____, and one cubic meter of soil can weigh _____.

a. up to 100 pounds, as much as 500 pounds
b. 100 pounds, up to 1,500 pounds
c. 140 pounds or more, more than 3,000 pounds
d. 280 pounds, around 2,000 pounds
Extra soil moisture tends to speed up sliding soil failures.
Extra soil moisture tends to speed up sliding soil failures.

Sliding Problems

Sliding and other modes of failure can also occur in soils that are not densely compacted. For example, a trench that is made close to a previously dug trench is very unstable. If non-compacted soil is discovered, the normal safe slope for dense soil will not be enough to prevent sliding. Bracing or further sloping may be necessary.

If cracks are observed in rocky types of soil, sliding has already occurred. These cracks should signal that a more gradual slope for excavation is needed because the rocky soil is very susceptible to slides and other types of failure.

Excavations that have been stable for long periods are also subject to sliding types of failure. After prolonged exposure to the elements, the moisture content in the soil may increase. This increase in moisture may be due to various causes, such as rainfall or a broken water line. The extra soil moisture tends to speed up sliding soil failures.

Determining the correct safe slope can be quite difficult for certain types of soil. The OSHA standard has developed a simple method of determining safe excavation bank slopes for different soil types. This method will be discussed in more detail in a later section of this document.

Soil failure can occur for any number of reasons. Factors that increase the chances of soil failure are:

  1. excessive vibration - heavy equipment movement, earthquakes
  2. surface encumbrances - obstructions, broken water lines
  3. weather conditions - prolonged periods of rain

6. Each of the following is a factor that increases the chance of soil failure, EXCEPT _____.

a. excessive vibration
b. compaction
c. surface encumbrances
d. weather conditions

Soil Testing

Check out this DOL video on soil classifications.

A competent person must conduct visual and manual soil tests before anyone enters an excavation. Visual and manual tests are a critical part of determining the type of protective system that will be used.

Soil and Stability

Some soils are more stable than others. The type of soil is one of the factors that determine the chance that an excavation will cave in. There are three basic soil types that you may encounter:

  • Type A – very stable. Clay is an example.
  • Type B – less stable than type A soil. The soil will crack or fissure. Crushed rock, silt, and soils that contain an equal mixture of sand and silt are examples.
  • Type C – the least stable soil. Particles do not stick together. Gravel and sand are examples.

Soil has other qualities that affect its stability. These include granularity, saturation, cohesiveness, and unconfined compressive strength.

  • Granularity refers to the size of the soil grains; the larger the grains, the less stable the soil.
  • Saturation means how much water soil will absorb.
  • Cohesiveness means how well soil holds together; clay is a cohesive soil.
  • Unconfined compressive strength is determined by a test that shows how much pressure it takes to collapse a soil sample. For example, type A soil must have an unconfined compressive strength of at least 1.5 tons per square foot.

7. Which of the following soil types is least stable?

a. Class A
b. Class B
c. Class C
d. Class D

Visual Tests

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Visual tests for soils.

Visual testing involves looking at the soil and the area around the excavation site for signs of instability. The competent person might do visual tests such as the following:

  • Observe the soil as it is excavated. Soil that remains in large clumps when excavated may be cohesive. Soil that breaks up easily is granular.
  • Examine the particle sizes of excavated soil to determine how they hold together.
  • Look for cracks or fissures in the faces of the excavation.
  • Look for layers of different soil types and the angle of the layers in the face of the excavation that may indicate instability.
  • Look for water seeping from the sides of the excavation.
  • Look for signs of previously disturbed soil from other construction or excavation work.
  • Consider vibration from construction activity or highway traffic that may affect the stability of the excavation.

8. Which of the following visual tests indicate stability?

a. Signs of previously disturbed soil
b. Soil that forms large clumps
c. Cracks or fissures
d. Layers of different soil

Manual Tests

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Thumb test for soils.

Manual testing involves evaluating a sample of soil from the excavation to determine qualities such as cohesiveness, granularity, and unconfined compressive strength. Soil can be tested either on site or off site but should be tested as soon as possible to preserve its natural moisture.

Manual Test Examples

Plasticity test: This is sometimes called the "pencil test." Shape a sample of moist soil into a ball and try to roll it into threads about 1/8-inch in diameter. Cohesive soil will roll into 1/8-inch threads without crumbling.

Dry strength test: Hold a dry soil sample in your hand. If the soil is dry and crumbles on its own or with moderate pressure into individual grains or fine powder, it’s granular. If the soil breaks into clumps that are hard to break into smaller clumps, it may be clay combined with gravel, sand, or silt.

Thumb penetration test: This test roughly estimates the unconfined compressive strength of a sample. Press your thumb into the soil sample. If the sample resists hard pressure it may be type A soil. If it’s easy to penetrate, the sample may be type C.

Pocket penetrometers: offer more accurate estimates of unconfined compressive strength. These instruments estimate the unconfined compressive strength of saturated cohesive soils. When pushed into the sample, an indicator sleeve displays an estimate in tons per square foot or kilograms per square centimeter.

9. Which of the following manual test results indicates Class C soil?

a. The soil sample is hard to break into smaller clumps
b. The soil sample does not crumble using the plasticity test
c. The thumb easily penetrates the soil sample
d. The pocket penetrometer over 1.5 tons per square foot

Competent Person

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Make sure a competent person is always on site.

A designated competent person who has training in soil analysis, protective systems, and OSHA's excavation requirements must be on site to classify the soil, select a protective system, oversee installation, and inspect the system after installation.

  • If there are no existing hazards the competent person can leave the excavation site for a short time, but must be present when a protective system is moved. Soil conditions could change or new hazards may arise that require the competent person’s judgment.
  • The competent person must be knowledgeable about the type of soil excavated and the protective system used and must inspect them daily for signs of instability, damage, or other hazards;
  • The competent person must approve any changes. Inspections are also necessary after heavy rain or activities such as blasting that may increase the risk of cave-in.
  • The competent person must have authority to immediately correct the hazards and to order employees to leave the excavation until the hazards have been corrected.
  • An employee who is trained and can identify excavation hazards but doesn't have the authority to correct them is not a competent person.

10. An excavation competent person must _____.

a. first obtain permission to make any changes
b. have at least five years of excavation experience
c. be a designated registered engineer
d. have authority to immediately correct hazards

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