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February 18, 2020

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The improving awareness around safe digging practices

Richard Broome, Managing Director at LSBUD, discusses the growing awareness surrounding safe digging practices and the impact this has on the health and safety of those working in or near to gas pipelines or electricity cables.

Safer working habits

Richard BroomeInadvertently striking a pipe or cable during excavation work can have significant and long-lasting effects on the person doing the digging. With this in mind, it is great to see that over the last 12 months there has been a substantial 14%  increase in the number of searches for underground assets taking place prior to any excavation work.

In Great Britain there are approximately four million excavation projects taking place each year, with a record 2.6 million of those being searched for on the LSBUD portal. This means that 62% of all UK excavation work is preceded by a thorough search, making more workers safe in the process. In fact, the portal receives one search every 12 seconds.

Part of this positive uptake is undoubtedly because more utility owners are now LSBUD members. Of the UK’s 1.5 million kilometres of underground utility infrastructure, more than 800,000 kilometres are currently covered by our collaborative portal, which is a 23% increase on the previous year, showing things are continuing to move in the right direction.

Impact of a strike

Accidentally hitting an electrical cable or a gas pipeline can clearly cause life-changing injuries to workers – and this is of course the biggest concern. According to the Digging Up Britain report, over the last six years, there have been 3,972 injuries (including fatalities) caused by asset strikes, and as this is only the number reported to the HSE, it does not include incidents that were ignored or unreported. There may also have been inconsistency or uncertainty in the classification of incidents, as some field operators are not properly aware of the reporting requirements of RIDDOR.

No matter how you look at the reporting, the worry over ‘safety related incidents’ caused by underground cable, joint or link box damage reported to the HSE, is still present, in fact such incidents have risen by over 700 percent in six years. This increase can be put down to greater volumes of work taking place and potentially more effective reporting. There’s little doubt that the increased number of searches going through the LSBUD portal have certainly helped drastically minimise the dangers of such asset strikes, however there is still room for improvement.

Employer liability and financial cost of strikes

There are plenty of other reasons why companies should focus on this risk area; from 1 November 2018 workplace manslaughter sentences increased to a maximum of 18 years for incidents of gross negligence. By having the correct processes and resources in place for working around utilities, employers can better ensure the safety of their workers and avoid prosecution, at the same time.

The most vulnerable sectors

So which sectors’ workers are most at risk? The bulk of the UK’s digging is done on behalf of the telecoms sector (34%), followed by the water industry (22%). However, as mentioned earlier, the UK’s infrastructure is at risk from a huge and diverse amount of groundwork activity.

There are various macro trends that we have started to see which are not only increasing the volume of digging, but also the nature and type of project. These include the need to improve the UK’s broadband infrastructure, the water sector’s focus on resilience and repair, farm diversification, a drop in the price of solar technology and, after population expansion, housing demand.

The point is that in order to avoid more workers suffering the consequences of asset strikes, it is crucial that those responsible for health and safety champion the cause of asset data sharing and infrastructure searching.

Real Life Illustration

More underground asset owners need to be encouraged to share their data on one collaborative portal, so that it’s easy for people to complete a comprehensive search before they dig. These utility companies will gain a lot themselves both in terms of the safety of their networks and their workers.

Take SGN as a practical example of this. Before it was part of LSBUD’s portal it was receiving 2,500 searches a month and the business was taking on average 15 days to respond to each request. After joining, the number of searches increased to 47,300, with a response time of just two minutes. Not only did this correspond with a decrease in damage to its network, but also resulted in safer working practices for those working in and around it.

With the majority of digging work being completed by asset owners (utility companies) themselves, it’s the sector’s employees and contractors who will be safer if all asset owners register.

It’s a similar story for Wales & West Utilities. It was receiving 23,000 search enquiries a year, with the average response time being roughly five days. After introducing the LSBUD system, it received more than 519,291 enquiries, and the average response time was down to less than two minutes. This not only means that more people are being supplied with information, but they are getting an almost immediate response, removing the possibility of people digging whilst they frustratedly wait for the results.

The solution

There needs to be a two-pronged approach to safer digging practices. Firstly, utility companies need to recognise that there’s protection by being part of the herd. The larger the number of asset owners sharing their information on a portal such as LSBUD, the greater the number of searches every asset owner can appear in. Secondly, those that are doing the digging need to be more responsible for their own health and safety, ensuring any dig is proceeded by a thorough search. There is nothing more important than your employees’ safety, so this information needs to be relayed to all employees and contractors involved in excavating works.

Regulators and the government also have a role to play. Utility regulators should help ensure all parties fully understand the widespread benefits of sharing data, and encourage utilities to share more, so that worker health and safety is not put at unnecessary risk. The HSE needs to continue its work enforcing greater search rigour with all at-risk sectors. At a national and local level, MPs should also encourage utility companies to join LSBUD’s collaborative system and not operate apart from it.

As the Digging Up Britain report shows, great strides have been made in the past year. People are searching more through the LSBUD portal and have a greater chance of seeing the whereabouts of all assets when they do. That is because more underground pipe and cable networks are covered by the collaborative system. Health and safety professionals, both working within utility companies and in construction, must use their influence to make sure that this fantastic progress continues.

To understand more about safe digging and the continued education around underground asset searches, download the Digging Up Britain report.

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