In the wake of a rise in fatal trenching cave-ins, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has begun a targeted education and enforcement program to try to reverse the trend.

The program, which began Oct. 1, updates OSHA’s 1985 National Emphasis Program on trenching safety and responds to what it calls “a recent spike” in such accidents. Loren Sweatt, deputy assistant labor secretary for occupational safety and health, said in a statement, “OSHA will concentrate the full force of enforcement and compliance assistance resources to help ensure that employers are addressing these serious hazards.”

Bureau of Labor Statistics reports show that construction trenching cave-in deaths rose from 18 in 2015 to 33 in 2016, the most recent year for which figures are available. In an Oct. 1 directive, OSHA notes that of the 104 trenching-related construction fatalities from 2011 through 2016, “an alarming 49% … occurred between 2015 and 2016.”

In 2017, there were at least 21 construction-related trenching deaths, according to unofficial data compiled by the union-affiliated CPWR—The Center for Construction Research and Training. Those numbers may not be precisely comparable with the BLS figures.

From June through September 2018, there were seven trenching fatalities in six accidents, based on media reports, Jordan Barab, a former senior OSHA official in the Obama administration, said Oct. 3 in his online newsletter Confined Space.

OSHA’s new trenching program begins with three months of outreach. Its  area offices and regions will be required to provide compliance information to construction firms, associations, permit agencies and others. It says enforcement work will start after the outreach period “and remain in effect until canceled.”

Kevin Cannon, Associated General Contractors of America senior director for safety, likes the OSHA program. “I think it’s a balanced approach,” he says. Cannon says the enforcement of safety laws and standards combined with helping companies understand compliance obligations could be effective.

Chris Trahan Cain, North America’s Building Trades Unions director of safety and health, says, “The update is good, as well as the instruction to the field to really ramp up the outreach on this issue.” She adds, “I hope employers pay attention and work to ensure that no workers are put in harm’s way, given the hazard is so common and how to safeguard workers’ lives [is] so well understood.”

Stephen M. Wiltshire, Associated Builders and Contractors director of safety, said via email, “World-class safety should be expected and implemented on all construction jobsites, but especially when conditions include hazards like a trench or excavation.” He welcomes the OSHA outreach “to better ensure construction workers at these jobsites are safe, secure and protected.”

OSHA is directing compliance officers to do an inspection “whenever they observe an open trench or an open excavation, regardless of whether or not a violation is readily observed.”

Barab gives OSHA credit for the new program but wants further action. Among other things, he says OSHA should refer all willful trench cases to the Justice Dept. for criminal prosecution and says states and localities should require permits for all who seek to do trenching.