Excavation and Earthwork Safety

Earthwork in engineering is simply the process of moving or displacing parts of the earth’s surface involving quantities of soil, dirt, or unformed rock. The earth may be moved to another location and formed into a desired shape for the purpose of preparing for new construction of roads, railways, causeways, dams, levees, canals, and berms. Typical earthwork in engineering normally consists of excavation and fill or backfill of the area needed. Excavation may be classified by either type of material or purpose or, oftentimes, both.


Excavation By Material Types:

  • Topsoil excavation

  • Earth excavation

  • Rock excavation

  • Muck excavation – this usually contains excess water and unsuitable soil

  • Unclassified excavation – this is any combination of material types

Excavation By Purpose:

  • Stripping

  • Roadway excavation

  • Drainage or structure excavation

  • Bridge excavation

  • Channel excavation

  • Footing excavation

  • Borrow excavation

  • Dredge excavation

  • Underground excavation

Most often what people think of when the word excavation comes up is heavy equipment digging trenches for whatever reason. It might be your local municipality preparing to add drainage at the side of an existing road or your neighbor digging out a new pond for either livestock or personal use.


The safety issues involved in any excavation job cannot be stressed enough. Safety is such an important aspect to any excavation project that an entire website is devoted to just this one aspect of excavation and earthwork. In one 2015 article written by Allen Powell in the site’s magazine “Before You Dig,” there is an extraordinary list of the 10 best practices that every excavation contractor should put in place for their next excavation and site preparation job. These 10 things are:

  1. Training of all field employees should be comprehensive and mandatory.

  2. Pre-survey. White line all proposed paths of excavation before the start of any project.

  3. Community Outreach. Have your crew knock on every door on a route, explaining the upcoming work to be done.

  4. Homeowner Association (HOA) Meetings.

  5. Fully staff a 24-hour hotline that alerts location managers each night with a phone call and e-mail regarding unresolved issues.

  6. Daily tailgate meetings at the beginning of each workday.

  7. Air Knives & Vacuum Excavation. Companies that take potholing seriously take the extra time to use tools like air knives that limit the chances of damaging a utility or tracer wire.

  8. When constructing potholes with air knives and vacuums, require the drill foreman to document the depth at which a utility is found in order to guarantee the legal separation distance between the utility being placed and the utility already in place.

  9. After the project is complete, again go door-to-door, leaving behind customer door hangers with contact info for questions or complaints.

  10. Require a damage prevention team to show up on unannounced occasions for real-time audits and post inspections.


Along the lines of general safety issues in an excavation project, the number one person to be considered “at risk” is the single worker. The challenges of connecting more closely with any single worker can be numerous and frustrating. In this context, we define single workers as those that are self-directed, not part of your normal cohesive crew, do not regularly interact with co-workers and supervisors, and often on the job in a remote area. These employees generally leave home in the morning and go straight to the work site and return straight home in the evening, and have little – if any – interaction with other team members within their company.


Most single workers like the fact of their independence and the autonomy that their job provides, and really enjoy working “under the radar.” They make their own decisions each day that ultimately determines their own safety and well-being on the job site. So what, if any, steps can your business take to make sure that the needs and safety of any single worker are addressed? What can you do to ensure the health and safety program and all policies and procedures are being made available to this worker? What tools can you use to engage this worker in order to lessen his or her chances of injuries?


Premier Utility Services, LLC, recently shared the program they have in place in order to assist the single worker in remaining safe throughout his employment with the company. Their program requires all employees to attend both on the job and in classroom training which covers a three-step process of hazard recognition, hazard analysis, and following through on your plan made in the previous two steps.  The company’s full outline of their training program is:

1) Assess hazards associated with their work. Hazard recognition is the first step, whether the tasks involved driving, working in or near excavations, working near electrical equipment, working over water, using a drill or a hammer, lifting manhole covers, or any other associated work tasks.

2) Analyze the hazard in relation to the work being performed and develop a plan to eliminate or mitigate the hazard, e.g. if the task involved walking through high grass and deciding what to do to avoid hazards such as holes in the ground, uneven terrain, poison ivy and ticks? Most of the information needed to mitigate hazards is found in the Incident Prevention Manual, risk assessments, best practices and policies or tailgate bulletins and alerts, all located on the Premier safety website.

3) Act according to the plan by making the right decisions and avoiding shortcuts or alterations to the plan unless conditions change.


So, as you can see, safety is not to be taken lightly in any excavation project. The available resources are plentiful and easily located. When in doubt about any portion of your company’s policies regarding health and safety issues in the excavation and earthwork job environment, you should always defer to OSHA standards and rules. Please feel free to share this information with any excavation contractors you know.

Please follow and like us: