What is the difference between an excavation and a trench?

What is meant by a trench and an excavation?

In general, an excavation is a hole in the ground caused by the removal of materials. A trench is an excavation whose depth exceeds (is wider) the width. Trenches must be dug up to lay pipes in the ground (gas, water, electricity, sewage, etc.). In the construction of buildings excavations are excavated.

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What are the risks associated with trenching and excavation?

Working in trenches and excavations is dangerous for workers working inside and for workers on the surface. Risks include:

  • Collapses and subsidence that can trap workers
  • Equipment or excavated soil falling on workers (e.g used equipment or soil / debris stored too close to the excavation)
  • Fall in the trench or excavation.
  • Flood or accumulation of water.
  • Exposure to a hazardous atmosphere (e.g gas, steam, dust or lack of oxygen)
  • Contact with buried services such as electricity, natural gas, aqueduct, sewage, telecommunications, etc.
  • Contact with overhead power lines.
  • Slips, trips and falls when workers ride on or off equipment, or because of inappropriate access and evacuation methods.
  • Reversal by mobile machinery or because of falling or volatile objects
  • Risks associated with material handling (e.g, lifting, spilling, crushing, etc.)
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Also read: How to recognize the type of excavator that is best for you?

What should be done before starting an excavation?

The employer or supervisor is responsible for the work and must take the necessary steps to identify all risks before starting any work. These measures include:

  • Identify soil types related to digging or trenching. Soil properties often vary within the same trench (e.g soil type changes from surface to bottom and along trench).
  • Find the legislative requirements that apply to the administration and the type of protective measures to be taken.
  • Track all buried services. Communicate with the owners of all utilities and underground services that may be at this location and ask them to identify and mark the location.
  • Identify and locate overhead power lines.
  • Make sure these services are off, if necessary.
  • Know all the phone numbers of these services in case of emergency.
  • Check areas adjacent to the site for hazards and potential sources that may affect soil stability. Be aware that nearby vehicles and equipment can cause vibration and collapse of the ground.
  • Determine if nearby buildings or structures and their foundations exert pressure on the ground and affect the walls of the trench.
  • Test the space to determine the presence of dangerous gases, vapors or dust before entering.
  • Test the space to determine the level of oxygen in it before entering, and during the work, as needed.
  • Plan appropriate site organization and good maintenance practices, including moving debris and excavated soil sufficiently far from the excavation site.
  • Extract the water from the excavation.
  • Protect workers by making sure they do not fall into the excavation.
  • Identify appropriate personal protective equipment, including high visibility clothing for vehicle traffic, and ensure that each worker wears it as needed.
  • Ensure that a worker is on the surface when a worker is working in the trench to warn workers in the trench of any danger and to provide emergency assistance.
  • Prepare work permits for work in confined spaces, if applicable.
  • Provide a way out of the trench, usually up to 8 m (25 ft) from any worker in the trench.
  • Plan accordingly for bad weather conditions (e.g, hot or cold weather, storms, etc.).
  • Prepare an emergency plan and rescue procedures.
  • Keep first aid kits on site.
  • Inform and train workers on all existing and potential risks and appropriate safety measures.
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What should NOT be done during an excavation?

  • Do not enter a trench without protection to a depth of more than 1.2 meters (4 feet).
  • Do not start digging until you locate and shut down the buried services.
  • Do not enter a trench until you have checked the air for the presence of dangerous vapors and gases, or for lack of oxygen.
  • Do not place pipe sections, spoil piles, unused tools, wood or any other material within 1 meter of the edge of the trench.
  • Do not rely on frost as a method of soil stabilization.
  • Do not work under loads and materials suspended or raised.
  • Never stand behind a vehicle reversing.


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