Continuing Our Discussion on Trenching and Excavation—Daily Inspections

Previous columns discussed egress (April 2007), exposure to falling loads (June 2007), hazardous atmospheres (October 2007), and water accumulation (November 2008). We will now discuss the requirement for daily inspections and how the Review Commission has interpreted this requirement. Daily inspections of construction sites with excavations are required by 29 CFR 1926.651(k)(1).

When are inspections necessary?

Inspections are necessary only when employees are exposed to the hazards associated with the excavation. If employees will enter the trench or work in the areas adjacent to the trench then an inspection must be conducted.

  • An inspection must be performed:
  • prior to the start of work;
  • as needed throughout the shift;
  • after every rainstorm;
  • and after every other hazard increasing occurrence.

Who conducts the inspection?

A “competent person” must perform the inspection. The “competent person” is defined in 1926.32(f) as “one who is capable of identifying existing and predictable hazards in the surroundings or working conditions which are unsanitary, hazardous, or dangerous to employees, and who has authorization to take prompt corrective measures to eliminate them.”

The competent person must be an individual who has been properly trained or who has the requisite experience to identify hazards, who knows the standards associated with the work that will be undertaken, and who has the authority of their employer to take the necessary corrective measures to promptly eliminate hazards.

Does this mean the competent person must be on site at all times? When employers have questions regarding what can and cannot be done in specific situations, they can ask OSHA for interpretation of a specific standard. Johnson Controls World Services, Inc. asked, “if the competent person mentioned in CFR 1926.651(k) must be on site at all times.”

OSHA answered “there is no blanket requirement that a competent person be present at a construction jobsite at all times. It is the responsibility of the competent person to make those inspections necessary to identify situations that could result in hazardous conditions, and then to insure that corrective measures are taken.”

What does the competent person look for?

The competent person looks at the excavation, the adjacent areas, and any protective systems. They are looking for any “evidence of a situation that could result in possible cave-ins, indications of failure of protective systems, hazardous atmospheres, or other hazardous conditions.”

The competent person must know the standards that apply to the specific work being performed, how the steps outlined in the standards are applied, and when those actions need to be taken.

What if a possible hazardous condition is detected?

The answer is found in 1926.651(k)(2): Where the competent person finds evidence of a situation that could result in a possible cave-in, indications of failure of protective systems, hazardous atmospheres, or other hazardous conditions, exposed employees shall be removed from the hazardous area until the necessary precautions have been taken to ensure their safety.

Case Study

The following case provides some instruction on the application of the standard. In Secretary of Labor v. Decker Construction (OSHRC Docket No. 06-1106), one of the citations was issued because the contractor allegedly failed to have the trench inspected by a competent person prior to employees working in the trench.

It was undisputed that the standard was applicable and that the employees worked in the trench on the day of the citation. However, Decker was able to show through the testimony that their competent person inspected the site before work, he was authorized to act as the competent person for Decker, he was authorized to take corrective measures to eliminate hazards, and he had received training on trenching and excavation.

In this type of case the Secretary has the burden to show Decker’s competent person was not capable of identifying existing and predictable hazards in the excavation. The Secretary was not able to demonstrate that Decker’s designated “competent person” did not have the ability to act as a “competent person.”