Trencher Safety Promoted by Ditch Witch Organization

PERRY, Okla. — The Charles Machine Works (CMW®), Inc., manufacturer of Ditch Witch underground construction equipment, has launched a series of informative articles designed to improve jobsite safety and productivity of anyone who operates underground construction equipment. This initial article covers the basics of operating trenchers safely.

The Basics of Safe Trencher Operation

Thanks to advances in technology, trencher manufacturers are producing better and safer equipment today than ever before. But no matter how sophisticated the trencher is, the operator must learn and follow all operating procedures provided by the manufacturer.

Here are some of the main safety precautions that operators, supervisors and managers must incorporate into their daily routine in order to ensure the safest possible working environment.

Operator Responsibility. Equipment operators are responsible for ensuring equipment is operated safely and properly, and for ensuring the safety of coworkers and bystanders. However, safety must start with the supervisors and managers requiring that all operators are properly trained on each piece of equipment they operate. Having and enforcing safety policies and procedures and providing the needed training are essential to safety on the job and key to reducing the number of injuries and fatalities that happen each year.

Pre-Work Equipment Inspection. Before operating a piece of equipment, the operator first needs to read and thoroughly understand the equipment operator’s manual. Next, the unit must be in good operating condition. Make sure all guards and shields are in place and operator presence systems are functioning. Be aware of potential hazards such as exposed belts, chains and shafts. Check for leaks, but be cautious when checking leaks in pressurized hydraulic systems. A good way to determine if leaks exist is to look under the unit after it has set overnight. Never use your bare hands to check for leaks. High-pressure fluid escaping from a small hole in a hose or fitting can penetrate your skin. Hydraulic fluid-injection poisoning can lead to amputation, or even death—so be careful. Be sure that all safety switches are connected and working according to the manufacturer’s design.

The operator’s manual and the unit’s safety signs are designed to make operators aware of certain hazards associated with the operation and service of the unit. Replace these as they become worn, damaged or misplaced.

Loading and Transporting. The tow vehicle must be able to handle the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) of the loaded trailer as well as the tongue load. Make sure the trailer and tow vehicle are properly connected, and that the towing vehicle’s parking brake is set prior to loading equipment on trailer. With everyone clear of the loading area, lower the equipment throttle and slowly load the machine onto the trailer. Lower all attachments not held by stow locks, set the parking brake if supplied and secure the machine to the trailer with tiedowns. Reverse the procedure for unloading the unit. Always follow all state and federal D.O.T. regulations.

Jobsite Preparation. Before beginning any job, mark the proposed trench path with white paint and contact your local one-call service or the national 811 number to have all underground utilities located and marked. In most cases, this should be done at least 48 hours prior to start of job, but check your local and state regulations for one-call regulations and notification. Knowledge of the laws in your area is important. Some states may not require all underground utility owners to be members of the one-call system. In those instances, utility owners must be contacted separately. It is your responsibility to prevent damage to underground utilities.

Walk the jobsite and look for signs of buried utilities that may have been missed. These could include trench lines, utility risers or pads, meters, lines coming down utility poles, and manholes. Other items often overlooked are yard lights, power to outbuildings and invisible dog fences. Some of these may be an inconvenience if damaged, while others can cause serious injury.

Potential Hazards. Start trenches away from obstructions such as curbs, slabs and fences that digging teeth may catch. Stop trenching to make trench observations such as trench depth. Clear objects such as landscaping fabric, cable and wire from the work area. Operate only with personal restraint bar or trench cleaner in place.

If trenching must be done on a slope, travel only up and down a slope. If operating across a slope cannot be avoided, swing all attachments toward the uphill side and lower them as much as possible. Avoid turning on slopes. If operating a walk-along trencher, never stand on the downhill side of the equipment.

Always wear your seatbelt, if equipped. Never remove, weld on or alter the Rollover Protection System (ROPS). If working in dense underbrush or around trees, be aware of low-hanging branches that can snag control levers or catch on attachments.

The Danger Zone. You, as the operator, must be aware of coworkers and bystanders at all times. Inform coworkers and bystanders to stay at least 6 feet (2 meters) from the farthest reach of any attachment, including a backhoe. Bystanders and coworkers closer than 6 feet (2 meters) can enter the trencher attachment danger zone and may trip and fall into the trench or onto the attachment. Also, the trench could cave in, causing entanglement with the attachment. When working in rocky conditions, the attachment can throw rocks from the trench and strike coworkers or bystanders.

When operating a machine with a drilling attachment, the danger zone should be extended to 10 feet (3 meters). Never stand on or grab a rotating shaft with your hands. Other danger zones to look for include such areas as the plow and backhoe attachments, as well as the pinch point on articulating frame units. Stay away from these areas.

Safety is a personal choice that each of us must make. These choices can make a difference on whether we get to go home at the end of each day.

For more information about Ditch Witch trenchers and safe operation, please call 800-654-6481 or visit

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