Think before you dig

Those working in the construction and civil engineering industries are at risk of unintentionally striking an underground asset, such as cable or pipeline, according to Richard Broome

It has been widely estimated that more than four million projects involving digging take place across Great Britain each year. In 2017, only 2.25 million of these saw a thorough search for pipes and cables before the work commenced. This means that 44 per cent did so without detailed examination for existing underground assets. This suggests critical utility infrastructure is at constant risk of being accidentally hit by construction workers.

Currently there is more than 1.5 million km of underground infrastructure already in situ. Whilst it is fair to assume that millions of potential underground strikes are avoided thanks to the intelligence provided by LSBUD’s asset search facility – which contains the details of approximately 50 per cent of the UK’s utility infrastructure within Great Britain and receives over 10,000 searches a day – not every construction firm thinks to use the free service and not every utility business has registered its assets. Furthermore, less than one per cent of local government has made its asset information available to resources like LSBUD. So, it doesn’t matter whether it is for building roads, bridges, or sewerage systems, it is clear to see why construction workers are at heightened risk of injury and loss of life.

Strike frequency
So, just how big an issue are pipe and cable strikes? Our recent study ‘Digging up Britain’ gauged the scale of the problem by reviewing the level of electrical cable and gas pipeline strikes that are reported to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) each year. Although awareness around the subject of asset strikes is improving, the sheer scale of construction work taking place means there are still high levels of incidents, and this problem is growing fast. For instance, the number of ‘safety related electrical incidents’ reported in 2012/13 was 162, whereas the incidents reported in 2016/17 was up to 1244. This is an increase of 668 per cent over five years, doubling in the last year alone.

Reported strikes to gas pipelines are falling, but still managed to clock up 1264 in 2017. It is important to remember that these numbers are for reported incidents, so they do not take into account the significant volume of incidents not brought to the HSE’s attention.

The report not only looked at the scale of the problem, but also highlighted the type of work that is taking place most often, and therefore suggests where possible strikes are statistically most likely to occur. Utility works topped the poll with 80 per cent of all enquiries made (1.8 million searches), with maintenance and repair on the UK’s highways coming next with over 305,000 searches. In third was housing work, which received 26,104 enquiries.

Impact of strikes
Striking an underground cable or pipe will have major ramifications for both the organisation and workers. However, the potential risk to workers has to always be the number one priority, no matter the financial ramifications. Strikes whilst digging can cause serious injury, or in the most severe cases, fatalities. In the five-year period between 2012 and 2017, the HSE reported 318 injuries and fatalities caused by underground electrical cable strikes. Again, this is only the number that was reported to the HSE, so it is likely that many more strikes went unreported.

When focusing on gas pipeline strikes, it is easy to see why they are likely to cause more widespread harm. One example often used to reiterate the importance of asset searches for more hazardous assets is a near miss in Birmingham from 2005. A subcontractor was undertaking an everyday connection to the gas network in a densely-populated area that was close to Spaghetti Junction. The subcontractor mistook a 12” multifuel pipeline for a 6” gas pipeline, so when drilling started the contractors were unaware that they were drilling into a pipe with petrol running through it at very high pressure. Thanks to a regular patrol by the pipeline technicians, a strike was avoided by millimetres, but it would have been Britain’s most extreme fuel pipe incident if work had continued for a matter of minutes longer.

In addition to health and safety, both financial costs and damage to brand reputation are also major implications of hitting underground assets. It’s fair to say that both of these affect asset owners more than construction companies, with the commercial costs of strikes being especially significant. However, given that these asset owners (utility companies) are often major customers of the construction and civil engineering sector, hitting pipes and cables is also very detrimental for a construction company’s corporate reputation.

So, what can actually be done? A prime step has to be for asset owners to ensure that their pipe and cable networks can be found on resources like LSBUD’s portal. This offers a free, easy online search service that quickly provides underground utility mapping records across the UK.

However, construction firms and their contractors can play their part by remembering to search each and every time, no matter how small the project is. Education and awareness are also both imperative in keeping people safe. We received a 27 per cent increase in searches between 2016 and 2017, which means that we are now providing information for more than 10,000 searches every working day to help the industry work more safely. Whilst this is a really positive step forward, there is still a long way to go. Every construction company needs to ensure that all of its workers and contractors who work on their behalf are briefed to make a LSBUD enquiry before any spade or digger is used.

When people’s lives are at stake, we need to be doing everything we can to make sure the working conditions are optimal. There is no excuse for failure when it comes to pipe and cable strikes, we just need everyone, both asset owners and contractors, to get involved and improve standards together.

Richard Broome is Managing Director at LSBUD.
LSBUD (Linesearch BeforeUdig) is a free to use online safe digging service providing utility mapping records across the UK. The service processes over 2.5 million enquiries per annum from construction firms, contractors and individuals on behalf of over 75 asset owning Members. Members include National Grid, UK Power Networks, WPD, SGN, Esso, Shell, Zayo and Gigaclear.

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To download a copy of the Digging Up Britain report, go to: