Explosions can destroy homes, cost thousands, and threaten human lives. Worse than a tragic explosion is one that happens in spite of it being entirely preventable. This type of tragedy, whether by willful disregard for the law or lack of competence is why best practices for excavation are so critical.

Digging always poses threats. That is because any ground breaking with a shovel or hydraulic power tool, means forcefully entering a place we cannot see, where anything from cables and power lines to water mains or hazardous material pipelines may be.

Indeed, hidden just beneath the surface, all across America are millions of miles of pipeline and buried facilities. To protect the facilities themselves, but more importantly the lives of excavators and the economy and property of communities, the federal government implemented a national Call Before You Dig program. This works with a network from state to local call center (reachable at 811) to identify, locate, and mark the utilities underneath us before any excavation job takes place. Be it backyard weekend projects, routine maintenance, or corporate construction, this is essential.

After 15 years of the national 811 phone number, there is little excuse for failing to call before beginning a project. But day after day, incidents occur where no call was placed, or best practices were not followed after the process began. The toll inflicted by these incidents is incredibly high.

In September, tragedy struck Maine when a propane line was severed during a construction project. The line was damaged when crews installed a new bollard post, and the resulting gas leak filled a basement and ultimately led to a deadly explosion. The death of a veteran firefighter and injury of seven others only scratch the surface of the loss such an incident can bring, including the damage to the building, paperwork and organizational assets, and far more. Subsequent investigations revealed that crews were liable for failing to have competent inspections of underground hazards.

A local outlet also reported, “In January, Techno Metal Post was fined $1,000 by the Public Utilities Commission for violating the Dig Safe law that required the company to call before doing any excavation and for failure to properly premark the area of proposed excavation near a recently installed 400-gallon propane tank.”

Such a simple omission as failing to make a call can lead to deadly outcomes. It is also one of the simplest best practices of excavation safety and damage prevention.

Other examples of excavation damage are less severe, but no less important to avoid. In Ohio last month, a road crew struck a gas line causing the closure of a road. A similar incident in North Carolina resulted in resident evacuations and multiple road closures. Thankfully, no injuries were reported, but the costs of such an incident include the leaked gas itself, the damage and repair cost for the pipeline and road, and the delays and hindrance to the community and potentially economy that road closures bring. These small scale incidents may not demonstrate how high the costs can be, but multiply them by the number of incidents that happen every day across the country, and you can begin to see how much is lost by preventable incidents like this.

Assessing these recent incidents, one thing is clear: [highlight] excavation damage can be costly[/highlight]. That is why damage prevention is so critical. Following simple and effective best practices can prevent each of these incidents and literally save lives.

When best practices are not followed, as the Maine example highlights, not only are lives on the line, but whole enterprises, like the nonprofit whose building was destroyed. These best practices start off incredibly simple: Call several days before digging. Just making the call and beginning the process is vital for health and safety, because the crew doing the digging may encounter hidden threats that could harm or kill them in an instant or lead to a leak and delayed harm.

After making the call, the process moves along to include others who will inspect and mark the location of underground facilities to avoid. Then an abundance of caution and care should still be employed by the excavators, now digging on marked (but still opaque) ground.

These best practices, combined with the latest technology and communications platforms and tools reduce the potential for damage to near zero levels. If the call is made, the call center contacts all relevant utility operators, they share the best available data, digital and virtual maps and photos, and the area is effectively marked, everyone in the community is safer.

As incidents occur every day, it is important that policymakers are tracking them and noticing the trends and commonalities. Then, these key decision makers can begin to implement and enforce best practices to save lives, money, time, and more. We can achieve a world with near zero excavation damage. But it will take following the best practices we already know work.


Written by Benjamin Dierker, Director of Public Policy


The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.