Earthworks is a term civil engineers and construction workers are familiar with. Earthworks are engineering works done by engineers and these involves creation of works by processing/excavating parts of the surface of the earth. It involves the handling of large quantities of soil from the earth and rocks that lie underneath the earth’s surface.
As the name suggests, Earthworks covers a wide range of engineering work that go over and far above the ordinary digging of soil and transportation of the excavated portions of the earth to another area within the site construction parameters. To this effect, Earthworks can be classified according to the materials involved like topsoil removal and rock excavation (for manufacturing purposes). Earthworks also involves excavation for the preparation of specialized structures like roads, excavations for embankments, trenches, among a host of other specialized geotechnical engineering practices.
For Earthworks to start effectively, involved parties need to conduct an evaluation of the geology of the marked site. This is to enable them assess the specifications, quantities of earthwork, undertake structural calculations, analyze the stability of the earth’s foundation, and design appropriate construction details. Every conceivable factor that might affect short or long-term stability of the project must be thoroughly evaluated before earthwork excavation begins. Post-density properties of finished earthwork must also be evaluated to ensure that it meets with the design-cum-performance qualifications originally calculated.
Earthworks does not finish with the final output. The done structures should be evaluated in the long term to check for signs of abnormal stress. This will enable the engineers to design remedies and implement them should structural failure occur. For example, the largest embankment in the world is the Nurek Dam in Tajikistan, and a look at the sheer amount of the water it holds back dictates the absolute need for continued long-term monitoring to check for stress and possible failure.
Earthworks may be large-scale, and in spite of long-term monitoring, can still fail. Countries like the USA and the UK have recorded their own shares of embankment failures. Another study of the earthworks for the M1 motorway in Bedfordshire, England, shows a continued speed-up in the rate of the failings of the cuttings and embankments on the Gault Clay after about fifteen years following construction. Thus, continuous monitoring and assessing of possible failure is an integral part of highway earthworks maintenance (which are regarded as geotechnical assets).
It should be noted that a substantial portion of earthworks worldwide are mostly associated with the construction of transport infrastructure or the disposal of human waste products (known as non-engineered fill since they don’t involve any engineering processes).
Earthworks done for transport infrastructure are usually lengthwise in nature and involve embankments and cuttings. For earthworks, rock and earth from cuttings can be reused on site, recycled, or transported off the site as waste either for disposal or recovery. This has occurred over time since pre-historic times when the first drainage ditches, roadways, defensive ditches, were constructed. Such constructions exist all over the world; e.g., the Colombian earthworks like canals that date back to 4000BC. Upon the industrial revolution, there arose a need for long-term stability in cuttings and embankments so as to carry heavy loads first associated with waterways, then railways, then highways. These long combination of cuttings and embankments require very sophisticated design approaches and construction. They now form core components of modern transport infrastructure.
Several publications have recognized the need for safe construction of earthworks globally. Because of this, most countries have their own national codes of practice. However, the use of materials associated with specific regions may need local scrutiny since other codes merely provide general standards of work.
It should be noted too that in spite of careful measures taken, earthworks still fail. Seminars have been held to address this issue, and measures to be taken suggested. Read more on Encyclopedia Project.
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