The excavator has made what used to be a daunting task—digging—much easier for construction workers. However, these machines can be incredibly dangerous, especially if you aren’t aware of the risks. Recognizing the risks of using an excavator and understanding the best ways to avoid them can help keep your workplace safe.

Common Excavation and Trenching Hazards

Before we get into the ways you can avoid excavator accidents, it’s important to identify the most common excavation and trench hazards:

Machine Rollovers

Machine rollovers can occur at any moment, especially if the operator isn’t following proper safety procedures. Sometimes the ground beneath the machine will give out, causing a rollover. Other causes include traveling too quickly, traveling on a too-steep slope, and traveling with the attachments improperly lowered. Not using proper safety equipment increases the chances of serious injury or fatality due to a rollover. The sudden movement of a rollover can eject an operator if they don’t use safety belts/harnesses or even leave the cab door open. An operator could put themselves at further risk if they attempt to exit the machine mid-roll over.

Contact with Power Lines

While regulations dictate that machines must stay at least 20 feet away from nearby power lines, electrocution still kills many excavator operators. Generally, contact occurs when operators fail to check if they have enough overhead clearance. When a worker strikes a power line, they might panic and let go of the controls for a moment. When they attempt to touch the controls again or exit the machine, they get electrocuted. Besides the operator, any worker who attempts to approach the electrified machine might get shocked as well.

Maintenance Errors

When operators fail to properly maintain their machines, they put themselves and those nearby at risk. Even a minor maintenance issue like a misplaced lock pin could make a heavy component come loose and crush someone. In addition to misplaced components, unauthorized changes to the machine threaten its overall operational or structural integrity.

Trenching Accidents

Trenching accidents occur when the ground cannot support the changes in pressure caused by excavation. The weight of the machine can cause loose dirt to shift, which in turn can tip the machine. Other trenching accidents result from improper trenching techniques or unskilled workers trying too complicated techniques. These can include attempting to straddle a trench or using the bucket arm to climb down the side of a trench. In addition to trenching accidents, excavator use can lead to cave-ins, endangering the lives of nearby workers. Without proper trenching protection, the dirt can shift and collapse onto an unsuspecting worker. Workers may be at risk if they enter a trench while excavation is still underway.

Falling Debris

Falling debris poses a significant risk to both the excavator operator and nearby pedestrians. Material from a load could dislodge and strike workers or civilians located too close to the machine. Likewise, the debris could strike an operator if they use an open cab excavator.


In addition to the falling debris, buckets can also pose a serious threat to safety and well-being. An operator unaware of a nearby pedestrian could strike or crush them when turning or lowering the bucket arm. An operator could also put themselves at risk by attempting to leave an active machine with the bucket arm lowered. A simple jostling of the controls can make the arm lower unexpectedly and crush anyone beneath it.


General Trenching and Excavation Safety Tips

Now that we have established what the risks are when using an excavator, it’s time to go over the ways you can avoid these risks. Here are some things you and the people at your worksite can do to avoid excavation hazards:

1. Follow OHSA Guidelines

Make sure that you and your employees are fully aware of the OHSA guidelines pertaining to excavation.

2. Stop Overhead Work

Prohibit other employees from working above anyone working in the trench or excavation site. Keep the work area clear of unnecessary equipment.

3. Keep Water Out

Use pumps to remove water from the excavation site and do not allow employees to be in any excavation or trench that has water accumulating in it. Water affects the integrity of the excavation.

4. Set Boundaries

Never leave the excavation open when work is not being performed in the area. Use barricades, fencing, and signage to protect both employees and anyone who is passing by from falling into the excavation or driving into it.

5. Be Mindful About Utilities

Always ensure there are no underground utilities in proposed excavation areas or have utilities properly marked prior to digging. Closely review as-built drawings when they are available for the excavation area.

6. Conduct Gas Testing

When there is a chance for a hazardous atmosphere in an excavation site that employees are entering, ensure gas testing is done, including any low points where gases can collect.

7. Use Common Sense

There are many ways to avoid excavation hazards. The easiest way is to use common sense. If something doesn’t feel right about the process, it’s because something probably isn’t right.

Also, be sure that the ONLY people who operate an excavator are trained to do so.

Excavation Safety Starts with You

Excavators have undoubtedly made life easier for construction workers and excavating contractors. What used to take weeks, even months to do, now only takes a day, maybe two. However, these machines can be very dangerous. Understanding the risks of using an excavator and how you can avoid these risks can help keep your worksite safer.

By emphasizing the importance of excavation safety, you can help employee recognize the importance of excavation preparation. Even if they will not be operating the excavator, the people around the excavator can also be at risk. It’s important that everyone involved in the process is aware of the risks involved. Until next time…Work Safe & Be Safe!

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