A number of WHS regulators have issued safety alerts warning employers and workers in the construction and utility industries to take trench safety seriously after two plumbers were engulfed in a trench collapse in Victoria.
The two men were injured when the trench they were working in collapsed, which was outside the area protected by trench shields. Both men were taken to hospital in a stable condition. The incident follows three fatalities involving trenches that occurred in 2018.
WorkSafe Victoria reiterated that safety measures are in place to control the risks of working in and around trenches and that the incident was an unfortunate reminder of what happens when trench shields are not correctly utilised.
“Trench shields are not intended to provide ground support, but rather provide engulfment protection to workers within the shield, and workers need to stay within the confines of the shield at all times when working in a trench,” WorkSafe Victoria said in a statement.
“Soil conditions can create a higher risk of ground slippage and engulfment, and always need to be taken into account when undertaking trenching work. All trenches can pose a significant risk to the health and safety of workers, especially those who are bending down to work on pipes or other services. Risks of engulfment and serious or fatal injuries increase with trench depth.”
Before trenching work starts, the alert said employers and self-employed persons (including principal contractors who are employers) must:
· Ensure a safe work method statement (SWMS) is developed and followed, for high-risk construction work, such as when the trench depth is more than 1.5 metres or a powered mobile plant is involved
· Ensure an emergency response plan (ERP) is developed to deal with potential incidents (eg worker rescue, ground slip or flood).
· Plan work so it can be done safely, including determining appropriate engulfment protection and site security requirements
· Provide a safe method to enter and exit the trench, such as having trench shields with guard rails attached and safe access provided by a tied off ladder.
The call to action in regards to trench safety follows charges being laid last month after the widely publicised death of two young men at a Ballarat construction site in Victoria in 2018. Following a WorkSafe investigation, local company Pipecon has been charged with two breaches of the OHS Act relating to its failure to use safety equipment, including trench shields and manhole cages to protect workers from engulfment during the excavation. The case continues in court.