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May 23, 2022

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Safe digging

2021 Pipeline Infringement Report highlights data as key influencer in protecting industry 

In 2021, there were 314 incidents of workers operating too close to pipelines, presenting a significant health and safety risk to those involved. Of the 314 incidents, 12% came from utilities excavation, an 11% increase on the previous year, according to Linewatch, the pipeline safety and awareness group. Fencing was the only activity to rank higher, making up 25% of all reports.

excavator loader machine at demolition construction siteIn its 2021 Infringement Report, Linewatch suggests this large increase is the result of an improvement in reporting, rather than an actual increase in incidents.

Murray Peat, Manager at Linewatch, explains: “Ensuring the health and safety of those working near high pressure pipelines is paramount. This is why it is so encouraging to see data entries from new Members in 2021, and from some who have been reluctant to report their incidents in the past. Although it means the overall number of infringements has increased, we know that this wider and more transparent reporting is a good thing for the long-term safety of those involved in digging works.

“It’s thanks to more of our Members promptly reporting any infringement or ‘near-miss’ that we can identify trends and problem areas – the dangerous activities, companies posing the biggest threats and even the geographical ‘hotspots’. Armed with such insights we can work with health and safety professionals and wider teams to raise awareness, better educate those at risk, and prevent incidents, rather than simply react to them.”

An infringement can be someone simply working near an oil, gas, or chemical pipeline without the owner’s awareness and permission, through to a worker actually striking a pipe. The result of hitting a high pressure oil, gas, or chemical pipeline is life-changing, with severe injury or fatality possible.

Troubling

The Linewatch Report suggests that 30% of infringements occurred even though the person responsible for the incident was already aware of the pipeline’s existence. This is troubling 2021 Pipeline Infringement Report highlights data as key influencer in protecting industry as it highlights a casualness, in some quarters, about the actual danger when working near pipelines.

Murray Peat is concerned by this: “Pipelines can be buried as little as three feet below the surface, which is about the length of a cricket bat. If struck, they can cause serious injuries and fatalities, as well as irreversible environmental damage with commensurate fines. The potential risk cannot be over-estimated. Which is why the proper process of searching with LSBUD before digging and of course, alerting the pipeline operator, should be followed every time.”

Whilst utilities present a problem, they are not the biggest offenders. Landowners and their contractors pose the greatest risk to pipeline integrity. Of all incidents, ‘Landowners’ were the most common offenders, with 167 infringements, 53% of all infringements reported. 43% occurred on farmland.

Fencing was the most common danger activity, making up 25% of all reports. This was followed by excavation for service, which refers to any work undertaken to install new services including telecoms, gas, and water supply, by utilities companies.

The numbers of near misses involving contractors and developers remained static across 2021, whilst utilities and highways works were the only category to experience a decrease in infringements.

In terms of severity, of all incidents recorded, 11 were deemed as ‘high’ category. This refers to works that had potential to cause serious damage to people and the environment. This is an increase on the previous year, but with more Members reporting, and therefore more data gathered, it is something to take note of, but is not wholly unsurprising. ‘Medium’ and ‘Low’ risk incidents also increased in 2021, which is notable as it proves a continual need to improve safety standards near pipelines.

When it comes to the timings of these infringements, the first and fourth quarters recorded peak activity, which correlates with increased seasonal work by farmers and the end of tax year, when organisations often use up their remaining budget or begin new projects.

Murray Peat, Manager at Linewatch, concludes: “With a significant increase in digging taking place post-pandemic, and no signs of this slowing down as the Government seeks to kick start the UK economy through significant investment in large scale infrastructure, it is more important than ever that the correct digging procedures are followed.”

As well as producing the Infringement Report, and promoting the awareness of safe digging, Linewatch advises those involved in digging works across the UK. During 2021, Linewatch delivered 117 free Safety Awareness Briefings to organisations around the UK. It produced several new educational videos to highlight best practice when planning and undertaking works around pipelines alongside an eLearning module created in collaboration with LSBUD, titled ‘An introduction to Safe Digging’.

Click here to download the full 2021 Infringement Report.

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