Workers at risk from strikes to the UK’s utility infrastructure
The unintentional striking of underground assets, such as cables and pipelines, can cause life-changing injuries to construction workers. Therefore, asset owners and local authorities have a duty of care to better protect those working on the frontline, as well as the general public.
Richard Broome, Managing Director at LSBUD (Linesearch BeforeUdig), draws on data from the company’s recent ‘Digging Up Britain’ report to highlight how common a problem such strikes are and looks at what more can be done to ensure workers stay safe.
Scale of the Problem
It has been widely estimated that more than 4 million excavations take place across Great Britain each year. In 2017, only 2.25 million of these involved a thorough search for pipes and cables before the work commenced. This means that 44% did so without detailed examination for existing underground assets. This not only suggests that the critical utility infrastructure is at constant risk of being accidentally damaged, but also that construction workers’ lives are regularly at risk.
Currently there is more than 1.5 million km of underground infrastructure already in situ. With the majority of digging work being carried out by contractors, normally on behalf of utility companies or councils, it is easy to see why every time a spade or digger bucket hits the ground, workers lives are at risk. Plus, with less than 1% of local government making its asset information available via resources like LSBUD, it doesn’t matter whether it is for fencing, housebuilding or piling, workers are at heightened risk of injury and loss of life.
So, just how big an issue are pipe and cable strikes? Our report gauged the scale of the problem by reviewing the level of electrical cable and gas pipeline strikes that are reported to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) each year. Although awareness around the subject of asset strikes is improving, the sheer scale of construction work taking place means there are still high levels of incidents and this problem is growing fast. For instance, the number of ‘safety related electrical incidents’, reported in 2012/13 was 162, whereas the incidents reported in 2016/17 was up to 1,244. This is an increase of 668% over five years, doubling in the last year alone.
Reported strikes to gas pipelines are falling, but still managed to clock up 1,264 in the last year. It is important to remember that these numbers are for ‘reported’ incidents, so they do not take into account the significant volume of incidents not brought to the HSE’s attention.
The report not only looked at the scale of the problem, but also identified the sectors responsible for most of the groundwork activity. According to the LSBUD data, the highest volume of searches came from the telecoms industry, with 799,553 enquiries made in just a one year period. Using these statistics as a representation of all the work being carried out in the UK, it is fair to say that the telecoms sector makes up 35% of all digging work that takes place. Water companies and their contractors generated the second highest volume of search enquiries during 2017, with 23%.
When this data is broken down further, it is possible to highlight the type of work that is taking place most often, and therefore identify where possible strikes are statistically most likely to occur. With the telecoms sector making up the most searches, it is perhaps unsurprising that utility work was cited as the reason for the highest number of searches. In fact, it came in at 1.8 million searches, which makes up 80 percent of all enquiries made. In addition to this, maintenance and repair on the UK’s highways received over 305,000 searches, with housing work receiving 26,104.
What these figures show us, is that every day assets are exposed to the possibility of strikes every time work is carried out, which puts workers at risk. Without the proper assessments and appropriate searches contractors are regularly exposed to strikes that can cause life changing injuries or death.
Impact of Strikes
The implications of a strike are evident on both an individual and organisational basis, and will heavily depend on the level of strike severity.
The safety of workers should always be the number one priority, no matter the financial ramifications. Strikes whilst digging can cause serious injury, or in the most severe cases, fatalities. In the five year period between 2012 and 2017, the HSE reported 318 injuries and fatalities caused by underground electrical cable strikes. Again, this is only the number that was reported to the HSE, so it is likely that many more strikes went unreported.
When focusing on gas pipeline strikes, it is easy to see why they are likely to cause more widespread harm. One example often used to reiterate the importance of asset searches is a near miss in Birmingham from 2005. A subcontractor was undertaking an everyday connection to the gas network in a densely populated area that was close to Spaghetti Junction. The subcontractor mistook a 12” multifuel pipeline for a 6” gas pipeline, so when drilling started the contractors were unaware that they were drilling into a pipe with petrol running through it at very high pressure. Thanks to a regular patrol by the pipeline technicians, a strike was avoided by millimetres, but it would have been Britain’s most extreme fuel pipe incident if work had continued for a matter of minutes longer.
In addition to health and safety, both financial costs and damage to brand reputation are also major implications of hitting underground assets. It’s fair to say that both of these affect asset owners more than construction companies, with the commercial costs of strikes being especially significant. However, given that these asset owners (utility companies) are often major customers of the construction sector, hitting pipes and cables is also very detrimental for a construction company’s corporate reputation.
So what can actually be done to ensure worker safety? Well, a sensible first step has to be for senior decision makers, whether it is within local government or utility companies, to ensure that their pipe and cable networks can be found on resources like LSBUD’s portal. This offers a free, easy online search service that quickly provides underground utility mapping records across the UK. The more infrastructure information available to contractors and workers, the greater chance of avoiding unnecessary strikes.
Education and awareness are also both imperative in keeping people safe. We received a 27% increase in searches between 2016 and 2017, which means that we are now providing information for more than 10,000 searches every working day to help the industry work more safely. Whilst this is a really positive step forward, there is still a long way to go. Asset owners and local authorities need to ensure that all contractors who work on their behalf are briefed to make a LSBUD enquiry before any spade or digger is used.
When people’s lives are at stake, we need to be doing everything we can to make sure the working conditions are optimal. There is no excuse for failure when it comes to pipe and cable strikes, we just need everyone, both asset owners and contractors, to get involved and improve standards together.
Click here to download a copy of the Digging Up Britain report.