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. Thousands of pipelines and other utilities run underneath homes and businesses, providing essential services to run all aspects of life from electricity, cable TV, gas, water, 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.
What’s the challenge?
The underground utility network is, by nature, difficult to locate and track. Perhaps the greatest challenge is ensuring that all parties communicate their collective knowledge of the location and properties of underground utilities with each other and more importantly, to the individuals performing the excavation work. Properly locating, identifying, and communicating the location of underground utilities should significantly reduce the risks of accidental damage.
Under the current system, excavators call in a ticket to a state-specific call center to notify all utilities operating in the area when and where they plan to excavate. These utilities then mark the facilities themselves or send a locating firm (private contractors) to the work site to mark where their underground utility lines are buried. One method of this communication is to physically mark the ground with paint. When instituted, this method led to many improvements, but it is still subject to problems caused by inclement weather, or other disturbances, including other excavation projects on or near the same utility.
These markings are the only communication between the utility and their contractors, and the excavators performing the work. One of the largest benefits of recent technological breakthroughs is the exponential improvement in our ability to share information with multiple parties immediately and simultaneously. This begs the question of why the industry is not using the best available technology to communicate the location of underground utilities. This is a careful question to consider when facing accidents that can potentially cause death, serious injury, or millions of dollars in property damage.
What’s the solution?
First, the best way to eliminate or reduce the number of incidents is to ensure that all parties have access to the best available information at an excavation site. The most ideal way to do this is to create and share digital maps of each dig site to identify the locations of all underground utilities. This information should be shared by all parties. Excavators on site should compare the digital map with what they are seeing in real time at the worksite prior to beginning excavation.
Further, states should ensure that the dig laws and best practices in place within their state are current and strictly enforced while making use of the best available safety tools. States should also review all standing exceptions to dial-before-you-dig laws and determine whether these exceptions create a safety risk.
Finally, ensure the timely reauthorization and appropriate funding for the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA), which regulates and oversees pipeline safety and certain underground utilities.
PHMSA’s authorization expired on September 30, 2019. Congress has not acted to reauthorize the agency or implement any new policies to respond to changing circumstances.
IS THIS THE BEST WE CAN DO? THE ANSWER IS CERTAINLY – NO
- Utilities need to take some responsibility for ensuring locating firms are using the best available technologies. They should also provide the most recent maps of their underground networks to the locators and the excavators.
- Locating firms need to do more than spray several lines of paint on the ground – they should provide digital maps of the dig site to all parties and clearly mark the utility lines on the images as well as the location and distance between any structures or other visible markers.
- Excavators need to notify One Call centers on any and all projects and should not assume that an exemption applies. They also need to be proactive in following up if a site description is confusing or the painted lines and flags create uncertainty about utilities in the dig area. Also, reviewing digital communications and comparing them to existing facility maps will help identify inconsistencies within the maps.
- States need to update regulations and ensure that best practices are reviewed periodically. They also need to review any standing exceptions to their respective “dial before you dig” laws and ensure these exceptions promote safety. Finally, states need to strictly enforce the regulations that are on the books and assess penalties accordingly.
- One Call centers need to be more proactive in upgrading their technologies to ensure that they are providing locators and excavators with the most accurate information possible. They should also provide all relevant parties with an unalterable electronic image of the site, rather than writing out a description in text.
THESE COMMUNICATIONS IMPROVEMENTS ALONE WOULD REAP LARGE BENEFITS.
- One Call centers and locating companies could provide excavators with far more accurate site descriptions and utility line markings.
- Excavators could compare the images and markings provided by the locators with utility maps, spot any potential inconsistencies, and contact the utility for clarification prior to arriving at the dig site.
- At the dig site, excavators could use the images to ensure that everything is where it is supposed to be, prior to breaking ground.
- Excavators could record where they install new facilities on digital maps, thereby improving the records and communications process going forward.
WITH SO MUCH AT RISK, THERE IS NO EXCUSE NOT TO USE THE SAFEST, MOST EFFICIENT, AND MOST ADVANCED TECHNOLOGIES AVAILABLE.
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