April is National Safe Digging Month, but it should be a focus all the time


April usually brings warm weather and the start of the construction season for many states. With that construction season comes risk for those doing excavation or utility installation work.

April — which marks National Safe Digging Month — is a good time to look at why alternative forms of excavation could be better for you and your employees. Since 2009, the Common Ground Alliance (CGA) has recognized April as National Safe Digging Month to promote awareness of safe digging practices across the country.

While it’s great to have the focus on digging safe for the entire month, utility installation crews need to remember to stay safe all the time.

Related: The Safety Wizard: How Behavior-Based Programs Eliminate Accidents

ACCIDENTS HAPPEN OFTEN

According to data from the CGA, an underground utility line is damaged once every six minutes nationwide because someone did not call 811 prior to digging. Look at news headlines online or even in your local newspaper for the last month and you will more than likely find a recent story about a line strike.

On March 7, crews excavating along the side of a building in Nashua, New Hampshire, severed an underground natural gas supply pipe. Just a day later in Chesapeake, Virginia, a crew struck a natural gas line as they were laying fiber optic cable.

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In both cases, no one was injured, but roads had to be shut down and homes were evacuated. Even when they don’t cause harm, line strikes do cost plenty of money for contractors at fault.

AVOIDING LINE STRIKES

One of the best ways to avoid striking a line is by first calling 811 — which is required in most states — and then calling a private utility locating company to double check the 811 locates.

Related: Hydroexcavator Operator Electrocuted on Job Site

Even if you do use 811 or another utility locate service, line strikes can still happen — especially if you are using traditional excavation machines like backhoes and excavators. Vacuum excavation machines, such as air excavators and hydroexcavators, are a good way to dig safer as well.

Both methods take most of the risk away from striking a dangerous or expensive utility line.

MANY MISCONCEPTIONS

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There are many myths surrounding excavation work: How many have you heard? Here are some common ones:

  • Depths of utilities can be assumed — Locator depths are approximate. Depths of utilities cannot be assumed. Utilities must be exposed to verify location and depth.
  • Exposing to the depth of the utility is good enough — Exposing just to the depth of the existing utility is not proper practice and may violate OSHA regulations. You need to verify that no utilities are hiding underneath and always expose to the depth of the intended bore path.
  • Drill deep to avoid existing utilities — Drilling deep creates problems such as locating and exposing for current and future excavation. At about 10 feet, locators become less accurate in locating the underground infrastructure.
  • Sewer lines don’t need to be located — If a sewer line is breached during a utility install, the sewer will eventually clog due to the intersection. To relieve the clog, a plumber will run a snake into the sewer and damage the line. If it’s an electric line, the plumber could be electrocuted. Several methods exist for locating sewage lines such as ground penetrating radar.
  • No locate marks = no utilities — If there are no marks, this could mean that it was not yet located. Inspect the area for evidence of underground activity, disturbed and repaired soil or pavement, utility boxes, conduit coming out of the ground, etc.
  • Responsibility for damage prevention ends when I call 811 — Wrong. It is the responsibility of the excavator to verify that locates have been completed and are correct. This includes contacting utilities that don’t subscribe to 811.

Here are several examples of what can happen when safe digging practices are not followed:

 
 
 
 

 

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