Trench regulations to prevent fatal incidents

14 Apr 2015 11:00 AM | Anonymous

IOPSA looks at trench regulations to prevent fatal accidents and save lives

On 12 February 2015, a 22 year old man died in Pinetown after sand at the side of a trench caved in on him. This incident has raised questions regarding the safety of construction and the regulation standards in South Africa. 

The 22 year old man’s identity has not been revealed. It is believed he was working in the trench for a contractor at a private business premises in Manchester Road, Pinetown. 

According to Doug Michell, health and safety manager for the Master Builders’ Association (MBA) north region, the current safety regulation standards for working in trenches include a process of procedures. The process should begin by appointing a competent person in writing to supervise the work. A competent person, in the context of the construction regulations, means having the required knowledge, training and experience, in respect of the work performed. In the case of plumbers where work includes excavations, it may not be the main task but is part of the work which requires special skills to be able to identify the potential dangers with regard to the excavation.

While working in a trench there are some pointers:

  • Evaluate the soil conditions, based on this identify what precautions should be taken (plan before you dig) – sloping, benching or shoring.
  • Monitoring the conditions, particularly water accumulation.
  • Inspecting the excavation before commencing work, not only at the beginning of a shift but also after breaks in the work.
  • Keeping spoil and machinery away from the edge of the excavation.
  • Provide convenient and safe access into and out of the excavation.
  • Erect barriers or fences to protect against falling into the excavation.

For the industry to prevent such incidents from happening is very challenging. However, incidents like this can be reduced by educating employers and employees, as well as through continuous developmental training courses provided by specialists for identification of excavation controls. In addition to education and training, every site should have a geo-technical report which would identify soil conditions. If these soil conditions can be communicated effectively, they could provide an early warning to contractors when performing their risk assessment. 

Michell emphasised possible reasons for such incidents. These include the fact that safety is often neglected because the contractors have not ‘included the costs’ for safety measures. Sloping, benching or shoring excavations take time, effort and material which obviously results in additional costs. A lack of understanding of soil conditions result in the attitude that ‘there is no warning before and excavations cave in’. However, this is not true when; you plan before you dig, find out any information from the health and safety specifications or geo-technical report; ensure that a ‘competent’ person supervises work related to excavations; and provide training for contractors to identify signs of a possible collapse. 

For plumbing companies: if the company is not responsible for the actual digging of the excavation and take access to it to install their materials, then the responsible person must be satisfied that the excavation is safe. If not, they should ensure that the excavation is made safe before they take access to complete their work. 

For information regarding the latest construction building regulation standards contact employer associations who have specialists or access to specialists. These specialists will have access to either government committees or sites on government committees, which can keep members up to date with legislation changes. Alternatively, employers and employees can visit the Department of Labour’s web page for the latest legislation. 

As a plumber, it is important to ensure you have completed the necessary training and trades tests in order to practise lawfully. In addition, it is the plumber’s responsibility to register with the Plumbing Industry Registration Board (PIRB). Being a registered plumber with PIRB gives plumbers access to continuous skills development and to updated regulatory standards. 


  1. Doug Michell - MBA North Region
  2. Sihle Manda - 'Man Dies In Trench As Sand Caves In'. (2015): the Mercury. Print.
  3. Deshni Ramkissoon-Pillay - '22-Year-Old Killed As Trench Caves In'. (2015): Web.



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