The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) can seriously affect any contractor or construction project. Compliance with OSHA regulations can be time-consuming and tedious, but it is essential to maintain a viable position in the construction industry. This month, as always, we report on recent developments in the world of OSHA.

Protecting Employees from Falling Loads During Trenching & Other Operations

Trenching operations are dangerous for employees working in a trench and for the employees working on the ground above the trench. Consider the numerous safety issues in a simple scenario where an excavator is digging a trench and loading the excavated material into a truck.

  • The workers in the trench are subjected to falling debris coming from the bucket on the excavator.
  • So are those on the ground above the trench.
  • The driver of the truck may also be subjected to the falling debris as the truck is loaded.

OSHA requires these employees to be restricted from working below a load handled by digging equipment and to be provided protection if they are in the cab of a truck that is being loaded. The specific standard, provided in 29 C.F.R. § 1926.651(e), sets forth the requirements for protecting employees from falling loads:

Exposure to falling loads. No employee shall be permitted underneath loads handled by lifting or digging equipment. Employees shall be required to stand away from any vehicle being loaded or unloaded to avoid being struck by any spillage or falling materials. Operators may remain in the cabs of vehicles being loaded or unloaded when the vehicles are equipped, in accordance with 1926.601(b)(6), to provide adequate protection for the opera-tor during loading and unloading operations.

What is “adequate protection” for the driver of the truck? The specific standard that must be met is 1926.601(b)(6). According to that section, “all haulage vehicles, whose pay load is loaded by means of cranes, power shovels, loaders, or similar equipment, shall have a cab shield and/or canopy adequate to protect the operator from shifting or falling materials.”

One truck manufacturer asked OSHA if there is a certain distance the cab could be removed from the dump truck body so that a cab shield would not be required. The manufacturer, Benson International, Inc., specifically asked if a 4-foot separation between the cab and the body would be enough to eliminate the cab shield requirement. OSHA responded that the standard applies equally to a “typical” cab that is less than a foot from the body and a “non-typical” cab that is 4 feet from the body.

The manufacturer also asked OSHA to define “adequate,” as it is used in 1926.601(b)(6). “Adequate,” according to OSHA’s response, “means that the cab shield must be sufficient to protect the operator from shifting or falling material in reasonably foreseeable types and weights and scenarios. As long as the design and construction accomplishes these objectives, it will be considered ‘adequate.’” OSHA declined to say how thick the metal must be or what weight it must be designed to withstand. “Adequate” meant sufficient to protect the operator in foreseeable situations, period.

Now that the dump truck operator is protected, we can focus on protecting the employees on the ground and in the trench. This part is simple. The standard 1926.651(e), restricts employees from being underneath loads being handled by the excavator, and it restricts employees from being near any vehicle that is being loaded or unloaded.

Still, the requirement is sometimes ignored. On numerous occasions, employers have allowed employees to work beneath loads, despite the standard. It may not always be easy to tell if a particular action violates the standard. Consider the following example. A contractor, August Winter & Sons, Inc. of Green Bay, Wisconsin, was cited for violating 1926.651(e) in March of 2005. The citation was the result of a scheduled construction inspection where the compliance officer witnessed an excavator bucket full of stone move above a foreman working in a trench. The foreman was guiding the bucket to place stone fill in the trench.

According to the compliance officer, the bucket passed directly over the foreman. The foreman and the operator, however, disputed this claim, saying that the knuckle of the excavator—not the bucket—passed above the foreman.

Apparently the foreman was located in the trench between the body of the excavator and the position where the stone was being placed. The foreman guided the excavator operator as stone was sprinkled in the trench in a direction towards the foreman, until the teeth of the bucket were approximately two feet from the foreman.

According to the Administrative Law Judge in Secretary of Labor v. August Winter & Sons, Inc., OSHRC Docket No. 05-0536, there was no violation of the 1926.651(e) standard. Evidence showed that the bucket never passed above the foreman’s head. The Judge also determined that, from the compliance officer’s vantage point, it could have appeared that the bucket was over the foreman’s head when it actually never was.

The compliance officer also testified that if the excavator’s hydraulics should fail, then the arm could jerk and injure the foreman or it could fall on top of the foreman. According to the Judge, however, 1926.651(e) “is intended to protect employees from the hazard posed by loads falling from lifting or digging equipment, not from the failure of the lifting equipment itself.”

Even though there was no violation in the August Winter case, an employer would be better off not taking any chances. It is best not to rely on the operator to move the bucket so precisely that it comes right to the edge of the prohibited zone without going past it. The standard, after all, is straightforward: Don’t permit an employee to work under or around a load of material being carried by a piece of equipment.