Safety Rules for Trench Rescue

OSHA 1926 Subpart P is the federal safety regulation that the construction industry must abide by when working in excavations.  While it may not apply to you as a first responder strictly from a regulatory perspective, there are many best practices related to trench and excavation safety that the emergency services field adopts from the OSHA regulation.  In this post, we will review some of these best practices.

Trench and Excavation Basics

An excavation is defined by OSHA as any man-made cut, cavity, trench, or depression in an earth surface, formed by earth removal.  A trench is merely a specific type of excavation that is narrow in relation to its length.  Trenches and excavations are dug every day in communities all around the United States.  They are dug to install, maintain, or repair things like building foundations, utilities, and underground storage containers.


The primary problem with working in trenches and excavations is having the walls of dirt collapse on a worker, seriously injuring or killing them.  In 2016, the number of deaths resulting from trench collapses outnumbered the total deaths from the previous two years.  The alarming rise in fatalities caught the attention of OSHA as well as the technical rescue community.

Best Practices

Means of Egress – A stairway, ladder, or ramp must always be within 25 feet laterally from a rescuer in any trench greater than 4 feet in depth.  Typically, first responders exceed this requirement during rescue operations by placing a minimum of two ground ladders in the trench.

Air Monitoring – Air monitoring for oxygen deficiency and other hazardous atmospheres must be conducted in any trench greater than 4 feet in depth prior to a rescuer entering the trench.  The monitoring must continue to ensure the atmosphere stays safe.  Typically, this results in a first responder being assigned to conduct continuous monitoring during a rescue.

Cave-In Protection – Rescuers must be protected from cave-in or collapse in every trench greater than 5 feet in depth.  Remember, if you respond to a trench collapse incident, there is a strong potential for a secondary soil collapse, so this protection is incredibly important.  Typically, first responders will protect a trench from collapse with shoring by using wood and/or aluminum struts.  This is an operations or technician level skill, depending on the depth and complexity of the trench collapse.

Daily Inspection – Per OSHA, a “competent person” must inspect trenches and excavations daily to detect evidence of cave-in, hazardous atmospheres, and other hazards.  For first responders, this translates into the need to appoint an Incident Safety Officer during rescue operations.  Be sure to appoint a safety officer who is knowledgeable in trench rescue operations!

Bill Elder
Owner / Lead Instructor
Elder Technical Rescue Services, LLC

Mention this blog post when contacting us to set up a Trench Rescue Awareness (3 hrs) class for your agency and receive a 10% discount!

2 thoughts on “Safety Rules for Trench Rescue

  1. It’s good to learn that you should use a ladder that can reach 25 feet when digging a trench. My brother is preparing to start a construction company and he was wondering what the safety precautions were for digging a trench. I’ll be sure to tell him that he should get a long ladder if he’s going to dig a trench.


    1. Hey Steve, the 25 feet refers to how far away the worker in the trench can be from a ladder. The actual length of the ladder can vary depending on the depth of the trench. Ideally, you want 4-5 rungs to be extending from the top of the trench in order to facilitate safe entering and exiting of the trench.


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