What is engulfment?

Engulfment happens when a person is partially or fully enveloped by soil or other material.

The risk of engulfment increases during excavation or trenching work or when working in, on or near, big voids or containers of material, such as:

  • trenches
  • shafts
  • tunnels
  • bulk excavations
  • silos
  • liquid concrete

Specific requirements for establishing emergency procedures

Under the Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017, Regulation 331 states that an employer or self-employed person must establish emergency procedures before undertaking construction work when there is a risk of engulfment. The emergency procedures must:

  • so far as is reasonably practicable, help the engulfed person be rescued and provided first aid
  • happen immediately after a person becomes, or is likely to become, engulfed.

The employer’s or self-employed person’s primary duty is to eliminate or reduce, so far as is reasonably practicable, risks associated with engulfment during construction work.

In situations where emergency services are unable to help with rescue operations, for example in remote locations, the employer or self-employed person may need to use engulfment protection control measures in addition to normal industry practice.

These additional controls, such as using both benching and shields in combination, shown figure 1, or significantly reducing the height of the benches, can further reduce the likelihood or severity of engulfment.

Use a combination of benching and shields to further reduce risk.

Use a combination of benching and shields to further reduce risk.

Documenting emergency procedures

Employers have duties to provide the necessary information, instruction and training to employees, including on the emergency procedures and how to implement them safely.

These emergency procedures should be easy for users to understand, onsite and readily available. 

It is recommended that employers maintain records of the training and instruction provided to employees.

In an engulfment situation, people working onsite need the necessary information, instruction and training to make informed decisions about how to safely rescue an engulfed person. By making uninformed or impulsive decisions, they can place themselves or others at risk, which increases the possibility of multiple injuries or fatalities.

For construction work that requires a safe work method statement (SWMS), the SWMS must describe how risk control measures are to be implemented. This should include the engulfment emergency procedures, which can be documented or referenced in the SWMS. For example, Engulfment – implement documented emergency procedures.

1. Planning for engulfment

Employers or self-employed persons should know how to deal with engulfment by:

  • consulting with employees during the planning process
  • identifying the likely engulfment scenarios associated with their work and developing emergency procedures for those scenarios. For example, a ground slip
  • including a contingency plan where emergency services are unable or unavailable to attend, for example when working in remote areas
  • identifying equipment required to be onsite to allow implementation of the emergency procedures
  • training nominated persons in emergency  procedures
  • instructing all workers involved about the emergency procedures
  • identifying appropriate post-incident support services (for example counselling) that might be required

2. Before starting the construction work

Where relevant, the site’s general inductions should address emergency procedures for engulfment incidents. Once onsite and before starting construction work, the engulfment emergency procedures should be reviewed and modified as necessary. The review should take site-specific conditions into account, such as:

  • The name of the person managing emergency procedures onsite. If that person is likely to be at risk of engulfment, include the name of an alternative person.
  • The accurate location of the worksite, so that directions can be given to emergency services.
  • Consideration of weather forecasts affecting the work environment, especially if this will affect emergency procedures. For example, how emergency services will access the site.
  • Checking that telephone services are available to contact emergency services.
  • Determining the quickest way to contact emergency services, especially if a telephone service is unavailable
  • Checking that the emergency equipment detailed in the emergency procedures is available onsite and relevant persons are competent in its use.

When the procedures have been reviewed and modified for site conditions, the employer or self-employed person should coordinate with the site’s principal contractor, when needed, to include engulfment emergency procedures into the principal contractor’s emergency procedures and the overall site Emergency Response Plan.

All persons who will be involved in the construction work should be inducted into the emergency procedures.

3. What to do if engulfment happens

A site’s emergency procedures should be used immediately if an engulfment happens.

The nominated person should take control of the site. If the nominated person is unavailable, another person, such as the alternative person nominated, should take charge.

People working onsite should avoid trying to immediately rescue the engulfed person. Impulsive actions can put rescuers at risk of engulfment, worsen the situation of the engulfed person, and delay emergency procedures, such as contacting emergency services.

What to do after the site is under control

Once the site is under control, assess the person’s condition, degree of engulfment and any risk of further engulfment. Work out if the person is:

  • fully engulfed
  • partially engulfed, above or below waist
  • able to help rescue themselves, for example their arms are free
  • conscious or unconscious
  • able to communicate if they have any injuries

Other things to consider are:

  • the stability of the ground or material
  • the likelihood of the person being further engulfed
  • if people helping also risk being engulfed

What to do when contacting emergency services

Contact emergency services as soon as possible and explain:

  • the engulfment situation and the person’s condition
  • how to locate the site
  • who and where emergency services will be met, for example on big sites where there are multiple works, to guide them to the location

What to do while waiting for emergency services

While waiting for emergency services, work out how to provide practical help to the engulfed person. This could include:

  • providing structural support to prevent further engulfment, for example, lowering a trench shield over the person, bench or batter back walls if it’s safe
  • trying to relieve pressure on the person’s body, for example, manually removing material around the person or providing hand tools to the person if their arms are free, to help them dig material away from their body
  • providing water or other fluids to keep the person hydrated
  • providing shelter to shade the person from sun
  • preventing the risk of flooding by using a pump or other effective method to remove any accumulating water
  • providing first aid and arranging transport to hospital if the engulfed person is able to get themselves out

Once emergency services are onsite they will take charge of the emergency procedures and undertake the rescue of the engulfed person. Emergency services might ask people on site to help with the rescue.

What to do when emergency services are delayed or cannot attend

If emergency services are significantly delayed, or unable able to attend, the person in control of the site should ask for advice from the emergency services about how to rescue the engulfed person.

After contacting emergency services, WorkSafe must be notified immediately about the incident.

4. Provide post-incident support services

People onsite who have been affected by the incident should have access to timely support services.

5. Review and revise emergency procedures

After the incident, review emergency procedures and revise them, if needed, to ensure they are effective.

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