Striking a utility line –whether during back yard projects or large excavation work – can have disastrous results if proper procedures are not followed before digging. Twenty million miles of pipelines and other utilities run underneath homes and businesses, providing essential services to run all aspects of life from oil and natural gas pipelines, electrical power lines, water systems, telecommunications lines, cable television systems and more.
In fact, there are more than two million miles of gas distribution lines alone in the United States. While any damage to an underground utility can create serious danger, this is especially true of gas distribution lines, because they are predominantly located in highly populated urban or sub-urban areas, and transport highly explosive natural gas.
According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), there were 1,438 significant gas distribution line incidents over the past 20 years (from 1999-2018). These incidents accounted for 208 fatalities, 983 injuries and approximately $2 billion in property damage.
While damage to other utilities may not be as risky to human life and safety, the economic consequences are equally serious, and excavation damage is the predominant culprit. The primary problem is a simple lack of best practices, regarding the use of available technologies and communication tools among stakeholders.
For example, despite significant improvements in GPS mapping technologies in recent years, incident rates have not kept pace. Increased use of the best available digital mapping technologies, improved communication between all parties (including utilities, excavators, locators), and stronger regulatory enforcement will go a long way in reducing the frequency and severity of incidents.