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January 5, 2022

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working safely near pipelines

The importance of working safely near pipelines and how people can prepare

Murray Peat, Manager at Linewatch talks to us about the importance of having safe working practices near high-pressure oil and gas pipelines and how health and safety professionals can best prepare people for working near them.

In 2020, there were 253 pipeline infringements and near-misses recorded by Linewatch members across the UK. Each of these could have been easily avoided if the correct preparation and procedures had been followed before any digging work had commenced. With pipelines often just 0.9 meters under the ground, just less than the length of a standard cricket bat, it is much easier than many think to get caught out if you haven’t consulted the operator.

The Impact

So, why is it so important to work safely near pipelines? Aside from the £15m that a pipeline incident could cost, these underground pipelines carry products such as oil, gas, and chemicals at extremely high pressure. If these are disturbed or ruptured, the product released could cause irreparable damage to the environment, and, most importantly for health and safety professionals, serious injury and even fatalities to those working on-site.

Issues like this are totally avoidable however, as long as the correct preparation procedures are followed in advance of the works.

The Protocols

In general, all activities within 3m of these types of pipelines will require legal consent and some level of supervision by the operator or agent. A sufficient length of time should be factored in for this prior to the planned date of commencement. To avoid damaging pipelines, any parts exposed during the work must be protected by cladding, as directed by the operator representative who must be on site, and any problems must be brought to their attention immediately. These are simple, but very important rules that could just save someone’s life.

On top of these guidelines, contractors must prepare for the fact that no buildings, structures, or caravans can be situated within the easement of the pipeline. And they must be aware that no topsoil or other materials can be stored over the pipeline or in the easement without written permission from the pipeline operator. This ensures that there are no obstructions to the pipeline, and surrounding area, so that it can be accessed at all times, if required.

If you are planning on undertaking works within 50m of a pipeline, step one must be to contact the operator ahead of time to ensure the safety of the onsite team. The details for these operators can often be found in the planning stages, with Linewatch recommending LSBUD, which provides up-to-the-minute utility plans and contact details for the operators. As a last line of defence, there are marker posts, which are located on most field boundaries and road crossing points and will provide you with a final chance to find the operators details before any project begins. Never assume that the pipelines run in straight lines between these markers, as you are more than likely to be caught out. Always perform a thorough search and check with LSBUD as early as possible and the operator directly.

There are many activities that require the notification of a pipeline operator. Activities requiring pre-notification include excavation, installation of new underground services, and new or replacement poles, posts, or lighting columns. The operator must also be contacted regarding building work, including property extensions, or upgrading roads or tracks, whether they are permanent or temporary.

When you have done your due diligence and feel prepared, the likelihood of a pipeline emergency is incredibly low, but it is always best practice to plan for all eventualities. In the event of an emergency, remove all personnel from the vicinity immediately, extinguish any sources of ignition, and shut down all machinery that is in the area. Then phone the emergency services, as well as the pipeline operator and ensure that everyone is safe until any leaks or damages have been checked and repaired.

One very important thing to remember is that damage should never be hidden, even if it does not cause a leak. Dents and gouges in the pipe could cause a failure at a later date, which could have much more serious consequences for others who are operating safely. Simply contacting the pipeline operator will ensure that this is prevented and all members of staff onsite, as well as the surrounding environment, are safe.

The Conclusion

While it may sound scary and be a lot to take in, ensuring pipeline safety is not difficult and it is fundamentally the most important thing you can do onsite to protect yourself and others from serious harm. By checking for pipelines at the start of a project, you prevent issues from occurring later down the line, which will save the project money and save people’s lives. Search before you dig is the simple message that must be remembered.

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