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Trenching & Excavation for the Competent Person

Did you know that the fatality rate for excavation work is 112% higher than the rate for general construction?  With the proper safety training in place, this number would be drastically reduced.  That is why OSHA requires a competent person be present at every job site.  OSHA defines a competent person as someone that “by way of training or experience, is knowledgeable of applicable standards, is capable of identifying workplace hazards relating to the specific operation, and has the authority to correct them.”

Many OSHA training classes provide basic or introductory information for workers.  Since the competent person is required to make important decisions, their training must go beyond the introductory level, to a level which provides enough information to be useful in their decision making process.

eTraining’s Trenching & Excavation for the Competent Person course goes beyond the basic awareness level of introductory courses and into the details necessary to create a safe environment for workers, as outlined in OSHAs standard 29 CFR 1926.650.  It helps a competent person answer important job site questions like: Are there adequate means of access and egress?  Are adjacent structures stabilized?  Does the procedure require benching or multiple benchingShoringShielding?  Are means of egress from the cut, cavity, or depression no more than 25 ft from the work?

These, and many more, are the kinds of questions a competent person on an excavation or trenching site needs to be asking.  And, while there is no substitute for hands on, real world experience, this Trenching & Excavation Course for the Competent person will go a long way in providing a good foundation of knowledge from which a worker can create a safer excavation work environment.

If you don’t need a Competent Person designation or would rather a more basic level excavation course, we also offer an Excavation Safety course that does not cover as much detail as this course – click here for more information.

Course Details

This fully narrated course is broken up into 6 separate units, with a knowledge check quiz at the end of each unit.  The quizzes will prepare you for the final, which you will take at the end of the course.

After passing the final with a score of 70% or better, you will be able to print a personalized certificate with your name, the course you passed, the date taken, certificate number, as well as our company information should anyone need to verify the authenticity of the certificate.

This course is packed with photos, video, interactivity, and a wealth of valuable information. It is approximately 4-5 hours in length.

Topics Covered Include

  • Scope, Application, and Definitions
  • Specific Requirements
  • Protective Systems
  • Soil Classification
  • Sloping and Benching
  • Aluminum Hydraulic and Timber Shoring
  • Shoring Alternatives
  • Protective Systems Selection

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A well-designed and thought out course increases student engagement and retention. The quality of the content and delivery of our online training is second to none.



The owners of etraintoday.com have over 25 years of experience delivering high caliber training in the safety field, certifying many thousands of students.

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What are common safety measures for trenching?

Safety measures and safety training for trenching and excavation are crucial to prevent accidents and injuries. Here are key safety practices to follow:

1. Hazard Assessment: Before beginning a trenching operation, conduct a thorough assessment of potential hazards, including proximity to utility lines, the risk of cave-ins, and the presence of toxic gases.

2. Call Before You Dig: Always contact local utility companies before starting excavation to locate and mark underground utilities.

3. Slope, Shore, or Shield: Depending on the trench depth and soil conditions, implement appropriate protective systems. Sloping involves cutting back the trench wall at an angle inclined away from the excavation. Shoring involves installing supports to prevent soil movement. Shielding uses trench boxes or other supports to protect workers in case of a cave-in.

4. Safe Access and Egress: Provide ladders, steps, ramps, or other safe means of entry and exit for workers in trenches more than 4 feet deep, within 25 feet of all workers.

5. Inspect Trenches Daily and as Conditions Change: A competent person must inspect trenches daily and as conditions change (after a rainstorm, for example) to ensure their safety.

6. Keep Heavy Equipment Away from Trench Edges: To prevent collapses, keep heavy equipment and materials away from the edges of trenches.

7. Know the Signs of a Cave-in: Workers should be trained to recognize the signs of a potential cave-in, such as cracking, bulging, and water infiltration.

8. Wear Proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): This includes hard hats, steel-toe boots, and high-visibility clothing.

9. Emergency Response Plan: Have a plan in place for responding to emergencies, including cave-ins and exposures to hazardous atmospheres.

10. Beware of Hazardous Atmospheres: In deeper trenches, there may be a risk of hazardous atmospheres such as low oxygen, toxic gases, and explosive vapors. Ventilation and atmospheric testing may be required.

11. No Employees under Loads: Workers should not be allowed under loads handled by lifting or digging equipment.

12. Water Accumulation: Precautions must be taken to prevent water accumulation in trenches, which can increase the risk of cave-ins and create hazardous conditions.

Taking an OSHA excavation safety training course and following these safety measures can significantly reduce the risk of accidents and injuries in trenching and excavation work.

What is the 5 foot rule for excavation?

The "5-foot rule" for excavation refers to a guideline set forth by OSHA, which mandates specific safety measures when an excavation reaches a depth of 5 feet (1.5 meters) or more. According to the OSHA excavation and trenching regulations and standards, any trench that is 5 feet deep or deeper must have a protective system in place to prevent cave-ins, except when the excavation is made entirely in stable rock.

Protective systems can include sloping, shoring, benching, or the use of trench boxes, depending on the specific conditions and requirements of the excavation site. The choice of protective system is determined by factors such as soil classification, depth of the trench, water content of the soil, changes in weather or climate, and other trenching and excavation operations in the vicinity that could affect the trench's stability.

The 5-foot rule highlights the increased risk of cave-ins and other hazards as the depth of an excavation increases, necessitating stricter workplace safety measures to protect workers. It's part of OSHA's broader regulations for trenching and excavation (29 CFR 1926.650-652), which outline the requirements for planning, executing, and managing excavation work safely.

What are common trenching hazards?

Excavation work is full of various hazards that can pose significant risks to workers and equipment. Recognizing and mitigating these hazards is crucial for maintaining a safe work environment. Some common trenching hazards include:

1. Cave-ins: Arguably the most serious hazard in excavation work. Cave-ins occur when walls of an excavation collapse, potentially burying workers under several tons of soil.

2. Falls and Falling Loads: Workers can fall into trenches or excavation sites, and materials or equipment can fall on workers if not properly secured.

3. Hazardous Atmospheres: Excavations can expose workers to toxic gases, low oxygen levels, or explosive atmospheres, especially in confined spaces or when underground utilities are present.

4. Utility Strikes: Accidentally hitting underground utilities such as gas, water, electrical, and communication lines can lead to injuries, service disruptions, and costly repairs.

5. Water Accumulation: Water in excavations can undermine trenches and cause walls to collapse. It also increases the risk of drowning.

6. Adjacent Structures: The stability of nearby structures can be compromised by excavation work, leading to collapses that can endanger both workers and the public.

7. Mobile Equipment: Accidents involving the operation of heavy equipment near or in excavation sites can result in crushing injuries or worse.

8. Manual Handling: Lifting, moving, and placing heavy materials can lead to musculoskeletal injuries.

9. Noise and Vibration: Extended exposure to high levels of noise and vibration from equipment can cause hearing loss and hand-arm vibration syndrome.

10. Extreme Temperatures: Working in extreme heat or cold can lead to heat-related illnesses or cold stress.

How deep can you dig without shoring?

The depth at which you can dig in an excavation without using shoring depends on several factors, including the type of soil, environmental conditions, and local regulations. According to OSHA, the requirements for protective systems, including shoring, are determined by the depth of the trench:

  • For trenches that are less than 5 feet (1.5 meters) deep, a protective system is not necessarily required if an examination of the ground by a competent person finds no indication of a potential cave-in.
  • For trenches that are 5 feet or deeper, OSHA requires a protective system, such as shoring, unless the excavation is made entirely in stable rock.
  • In some cases, even if a trench is less than 5 feet deep, a protective system may be needed if there are indications of potential cave-ins or other hazards, such as the presence of water, vibrations from heavy traffic or machinery nearby, or the weight of spoil piles along the edge of the trench.

It's important to note that these are general guidelines, and the specific conditions at an excavation site can significantly affect the safety measures required. An OSHA competent person—someone capable of identifying hazards and authorized to take prompt corrective measures to eliminate them—should assess the site conditions to determine the need for shoring or other protective systems, regardless of the excavation depth.

What PPE is required for excavation?

The specific PPE needed can depend on the job tasks, the site conditions, and the types of hazards present. Common PPE for excavation work includes:

1. Hard Hats: To protect against head injuries from falling objects, bumps, and electrical hazards.

2. Safety Glasses or Goggles: To shield the eyes from flying debris, dust, and other particulate matter.

3. High-Visibility Clothing: Vests or jackets that make workers more visible, reducing the risk of being struck by vehicles or mobile equipment.

4. Steel-Toe Boots: To protect feet from crushing injuries and punctures. Boots may also need to be waterproof or have special soles for slip resistance, depending on the conditions.

5. Gloves: The type of gloves required can vary depending on the work being performed. They may need to protect against cuts, abrasions, chemicals, or electrical hazards.

6. Hearing Protection: Earplugs or earmuffs in areas with high noise levels from machinery or equipment to prevent hearing loss.

7. Respiratory Protection: Masks or respirators may be necessary when working in dusty conditions or where there is a risk of exposure to hazardous substances.

8. Fall Protection Equipment: For trenches or excavations where there is a risk of falls, such as those with steep sides or where workers are required to work at height.

It's important to conduct a hazard assessment to determine the specific types of PPE required for a particular excavation site. An OSHA competent person should evaluate the work environment for hazards such as exposure to toxic gases, risk of falling objects, potential for slips and falls, and other site-specific risks to determine the appropriate PPE.

Additionally, training on the proper use, maintenance, and limitations of the PPE is essential to ensure that workers are protected effectively. Employers are responsible for providing the necessary PPE and ensuring that it is used correctly.


What are the main things to be checked before entering an excavation?

Before entering an excavation the worker should have OSHA excavation safety training, and several critical checks must be conducted to ensure the safety of workers. These precautions help mitigate the risks of cave-ins, exposure to hazardous atmospheres, and other potential dangers. Here are the main things to be checked:

1. Protective Systems: Verify that appropriate protective systems are in place for trenches deeper than 5 feet (1.5 meters), such as shoring, sloping, benching, or trench boxes, unless the excavation is made entirely in stable rock.

2. Atmospheric Testing: If there's a possibility of a hazardous atmosphere (due to the presence of toxic gases, oxygen deficiency, or flammable gases), test the air quality before entry and continuously monitor as needed to ensure safety.

3. Utilities: Ensure that the locations of underground utilities (e.g., gas, water, sewer, electric, telephone lines) have been identified and marked to avoid accidental strikes.

4. Water Accumulation: Check for water accumulation at the bottom of the excavation. Necessary precautions should be taken to remove water and prevent accumulation, which can undermine the stability of the excavation walls.

5. Access and Egress: Confirm that safe means of access and egress, such as ladders or ramps, are within 25 feet of all workers in trenches 4 feet deep or more.

6. Inspection: A competent person must inspect the excavation, adjacent areas, and protective systems daily and as conditions change (e.g., following a rainstorm) to ensure they continue to provide adequate protection to workers.

7. Spoil Piles and Equipment: Ensure that spoil piles and heavy equipment are set back at least 2 feet from the edge of the excavation to prevent collapse of the excavation sides.

8. Emergency Procedures: Review emergency response procedures with all workers, including how to exit the excavation quickly and safely in the event of an emergency.

9. Communication: Ensure there are effective means of communication between workers inside the trench and those on the surface.

10. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): Confirm that all workers are equipped with the appropriate PPE, including hard hats, safety glasses, high-visibility vests, and any other necessary equipment based on the job hazard analysis.

11. Fall Protection: For excavations or trenches that workers could fall into from an adjacent area, ensure that fall protection measures are in place.

What is an excavation safety risk assessment?

An excavation safety risk assessment is a systematic process used to identify potential hazards and assess risks associated with trenching and excavation activities, with the aim of implementing measures to control or mitigate those risks. This assessment, along with taking a safety training course, is crucial for construction workers for preventing accidents, injuries, and fatalities on construction sites. The main steps involved in conducting an excavation safety risk assessment include:

1. Hazard Identification: Identify potential hazards that could arise during excavation activities. This includes cave-ins, contact with underground utilities (e.g., electrical, gas, water lines), falls, falling loads, hazardous atmospheres (e.g., toxic gases, oxygen deficiency), water accumulation, and the collapse of adjacent structures.

2. Risk Evaluation: Evaluate the likelihood and severity of risks associated with each identified hazard. This step involves considering factors such as the depth of the excavation, soil type, weather conditions, proximity to traffic, and presence of water.

3. Implement Control Measures: Based on the risk evaluation, determine appropriate control measures to mitigate identified risks. This can involve engineering controls (e.g., shoring, shielding, sloping), administrative controls (e.g., training, planning, safe work practices), and the use of personal protective equipment (PPE).

4. Protective Systems Design: For excavations deeper than 5 feet (1.5 meters), determine the appropriate protective system (e.g., sloping, shoring, trench boxes) as required by safety standards and regulations.

5. Emergency Response Planning: Develop and implement an emergency response plan that includes procedures for rescuing workers in the event of a cave-in or other emergency situations.

6. Communication Plan: Establish effective communication among all members of the work crew, including signaling methods and the use of lookouts when necessary.

7. Monitoring and Review: Continuously monitor the excavation site for changes in conditions that could introduce new hazards or alter the risk level of existing hazards. Review and update the risk assessment as necessary, especially after an incident or when there are significant changes in work practices, equipment, or site conditions.

8. Documentation: Keep detailed records of the risk assessment, including hazard identifications, risk evaluations, control measures, and monitoring activities. This documentation is essential for ensuring accountability and compliance with regulations.

An excavation safety risk assessment is not a one-time task but an ongoing process that should be integrated into the planning and execution phases of any excavation project. Regularly reviewing and updating the assessment ensures that the safety measures remain effective throughout the project's duration.


What is the 5-4-3-2-1 rule in excavation?

5 - A protective system is mandatory for any trench deeper than 5 feet to prevent cave-ins, and a competent person has the authority to deem such a system necessary even for trenches shallower than 5 feet.

4 - For trenches exceeding 4 feet in depth, a ladder is required to ensure safe entry and exit.

3 - The ladder must project at least 3 feet above the trench to facilitate easy access and egress.

2 - Excavated materials must be placed no closer than 2 feet from the trench edge to prevent collapse and ensure safety.

1 - It is essential to have at least one OSHA competent person on-site at all times to identify and mitigate hazards effectively.

What is the excavation "four foot rule" and "six foot rule"?

The "four or six foot rule" in excavation work typically refers to safety regulations established by OSHA for providing protective systems in trenches and excavations. These rules, along with mandating the worker take a safety training course, are part of OSHA's efforts to prevent cave-ins and other excavation-related accidents. The rule is based on the depth of the excavation and dictates when certain safety measures, like protective systems, are required. Here's a breakdown:

  • Four Foot Rule: OSHA requires that for trenches or excavations that are 4 feet (1.22 meters) or deeper, there must be a safe means of entering and exiting the trench, such as ladders, steps, ramps, or other safe egress methods. This rule ensures that workers can quickly exit an excavation in the event of an emergency.
  • Five Foot Rule: While not specifically a "four or six foot rule," it's crucial to mention that OSHA mandates protective systems (such as sloping, shoring, or using a trench box) for trenches that are 5 feet (1.52 meters) deep or more to prevent cave-ins, unless the excavation is made entirely in stable rock. This is a key regulation for excavation safety.
  • Six Foot Rule: OSHA standards require that if an excavation is 6 feet (1.83 meters) or deeper, there must also be protections in place to prevent workers from falling into the excavation. This can include measures like guardrails, fences, or barricades around the perimeter of the excavation.

These rules emphasize the importance of planning and implementing safety measures in excavation work to protect workers from the risks of cave-ins, falls, and other related hazards.

What is the common formula used for excavation?

In excavation work, especially when planning and estimating, a common formula used is to calculate the volume of material that needs to be excavated or filled. This calculation is crucial for project planning, cost estimation, and resource allocation. The basic formula for volume in a rectangular or square excavation is:

Volume = Length X Width X Depth


  • Length is the length of the excavation area.
  • Width is the width of the excavation area.
  • Depth is the depth of the excavation.

The units of measurement must be consistent (e.g., all in feet or meters) to get the volume in cubic feet or cubic meters, respectively. This formula is straightforward for simple, rectangular, or square excavations.

For more complex shapes or when the ground isn't level, the calculation may need adjustments or the use of more specific geometric formulas. Additionally, in projects where the excavation site isn't a perfect rectangle or square, or involves slopes, the calculation can become more complex, often requiring the use of average end area methods or computer software designed for earthwork calculations.

Moreover, for cost estimation, the volume of excavation might be adjusted by a bulking factor (which accounts for the increase in volume that occurs when material is excavated and loosened) or a shrinkage factor (which accounts for the decrease in volume when the material is compacted).

In the engineering and construction industry, accuracy in these calculations is vital for the efficient use of resources and the successful completion of the project within budget.

What is the OSHA six foot rule for trenching?

The OSHA 6-foot rule for trenching refers to regulations that mandate specific safety measures for trenches and excavations that are 6 feet deep or deeper. This rule is designed to protect workers from the hazards associated with working in deep trenches, primarily focusing on two main areas:

1. Cave-in Protection: OSHA requires that any trench that is 5 feet (1.52 meters) deep or deeper must have a protective system in place to prevent cave-ins, unless the excavation is made entirely in stable rock. While the rule for cave-in protection starts at 5 feet, the 6-foot depth emphasizes the critical need for these protections as the depth increases, considering the greater risk of serious injury or fatality.

2. Fall Protection: For ternches that are 6 feet deep or deeper, OSHA mandates additional protections to prevent workers from falling into the trench or excavation. This may include providing guardrail systems, fences, barricades, or covers around the excavation site. The intent is to protect not only those working within the excavation but also those working around it, ensuring that accidental falls into the excavation are prevented.

These requirements are part of OSHA’s broader standards for trenching and excavation safety, covered under 29 CFR 1926 Subpart P. The standards outline various protective systems that can be used, including sloping, benching, shoring, and shielding (trench boxes), depending on the conditions and characteristics of the soil and the excavation site.

Employers are responsible for ensuring that a competent person, that has taken a competent person safety training course, evaluates the excavation site daily and as conditions change to determine the appropriate protective measures required. This competent person must have the knowledge to identify hazards and the authority to take corrective actions to eliminate them, ensuring the safety and health of workers involved in excavation activities.


What are the three types of excavation protection?

The three primary types of excavation protection systems recognized and recommended by the OSHA to prevent cave-ins and ensure the safety of workers in trenches and excavations are:

1. Sloping: This method involves cutting back the trench wall at an angle inclined away from the excavation. The angle of the slope depends on the soil type and environmental conditions. Sloping reduces the risk of cave-ins by decreasing the wall's height and the soil's angle of repose, making it more stable.

2. Shoring: Shoring involves installing supports to prevent soil movement and cave-ins. These supports can be made from timber, aluminum, or other materials and are designed to brace the trench walls temporarily. There are different shoring systems, including hydraulic shoring, which uses hydraulic pistons that can be pumped outward until they press against the trench walls, and timber shoring, which requires cutting and placing wood supports to fit the trench dimensions.

3. Shielding: Shielding does not prevent cave-ins but instead protects workers within a structure designed to withstand the forces of a cave-in. The most common type of shielding is a trench box or trench shield, which is placed in the excavation and moves along with the work. These shields are designed to protect workers if a collapse occurs, allowing them to work within the confines of the shield safely.

These protection methods are selected based on the trench or excavation's depth, width, soil composition, moisture content, weather conditions, and other factors that may affect the site's stability. Employers are responsible for ensuring that a competent person evaluates the excavation site to determine the most appropriate protective system to use. This assessment must consider all potential hazards and comply with OSHA's standards for trenching and excavation safety.

At what excavation depth does OSHA require fall protection?

OSHA requires fall protection for excavations at a depth of 6 feet or more. According to their standards, employers must provide protection to prevent employees from falling into or across excavations at this depth. This can include measures such as guardrail systems, fences, barricades, or covers that are adequate to prevent workers from falling into the excavation.

What is the simplest and easiest method of protecting workers in a trench?

The simplest and easiest method of protecting workers in a trench is the use of trench boxes or trench shields. These are prefabricated structures made from steel or aluminum designed to withstand the forces of a cave-in and protect workers within them. Trench boxes do not prevent a cave-in from occurring but offer a "shield" or "protective barrier" between the workers and the soil that could collapse from the sides of the excavation.

Trench boxes are considered simple and easy to use because they can be quickly installed and moved along as work progresses. They are particularly useful in situations where the excavation is deep, and other protective methods like sloping or benching are impractical due to space constraints or the nature of the work being performed. The use of trench shields allows for flexibility in work and can be adapted to various trench depths and widths.

However, it's important to note that even with the simplicity and ease of use of trench boxes, a competent person, who has had competent person trenching safety training, must still inspect the excavation site to ensure that the trench box is used properly and that all other necessary safety measures are in place. This includes ensuring that the trench box is appropriately sized for the trench and that it is installed in a way that provides maximum protection for workers. Additionally, a training program must be in place so workers are trained on the correct use of trench boxes and on general excavation safety practices.


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