What to Do If You Hit an Underground Utility?

By Beth Symes on September 17, 2018 in Blog

First, stop work immediately and make sure that your crew and everyone else is safe. If a water pipe was hit, the released water might have propelled some debris. If an electrical cable was hit, perhaps someone was electrocuted or the site became electrically faulty.

Serious issues often are obvious once they happen. The crew will immediately report to you if there are injuries. But there will be some cases when people will miss something because of the resulting chaos. That’s why it’s always good to first check if someone was hurt or if passersby are at risk. And if there are indeed injuries or any other serious issues, contact emergency hotlines and relevant local authorities.

Controlling the hazards & risks

Right after ensuring everyone’s safety, it’s now time to perform damage control. The damage should spread no further and everyone should stay away from the damaged utility. A safe distance should be maintained to avoid contact with the water pipes and electrical cables.

In cases where an underground storage tank was hit, the distance might be a lot wider because of the potential fumes being released. Perhaps the area was a service station, oil refinery, transport depot or an industrial site. The storage tank might still be holding diesel, petrol or other volatiles. Aside from causing fire hazards, the leaking fumes might endanger the health of everyone nearby.

There are also cases when a small fire suddenly got started because of a damaged storage tank or gas pipe. The instinct is to extinguish it right away (commonly using water). However, fires of this nature might only get worse if you pour water on them. Take note that fire requires fuel, heat and oxygen. Deprive the fire of any one from the list and you’ll be able to quench it. When using water, you’re trying to deprive the fire of oxygen. But this doesn’t happen when you try to quench the burning of gas because the volatiles and liquids will stay on top of the water. In other words, the fire will still have access to oxygen.

That’s why there are class B fire extinguishers specifically created for these scenarios. Other fire extinguishers won’t work or might even worsen the fire. Also, it’s good to always have safety officers on the scene so they can implement the right measures every time something like this happens.

Also keep in mind that even a slight damage can be dangerous. Often people think that an underground utility damage is only about rupturing a pipe or cable. However, in many cases it can only be a slight damage to the pipe coating, tracer wire or marker tape. Safety precautions should still be implemented during these scenarios. Even in cases when pipeline protection (e.g. slabbing, casings) was damaged, safety precautions should still be in place and the asset owner should be contacted right away.

Risks & dangers when working near underground assets

We’ve discussed general ideas in implementing safety measures when an underground asset was hit. But the first step usually involves becoming aware of the risks and dangers present in the job site. This will help in having the presence of mind whenever an unfortunate event occurs.

For instance, working near gas assets presents fires and explosions risks (especially if there’s an ignition source present). Immediate escape of the gas would harm anyone in the vicinity. Also, the public might be in danger as the whole infrastructure fails. The casing might weaken and the escape of the gas after the incident poses risks to everyone in the community.

It’s a similar case in the damage of petroleum or oil pipelines. However, aside from the escape of gas and volatiles (which may lead to fires and explosions), damage to oil pipelines might also contaminate the soil and waterways (and other alarming environmental issues).

Although gas and oil assets may present the greatest dangers, other utilities could also cause fatalities and serious injuries. For example, damaging live electrical cables often result to electrical shocks. This can also make the entire area electrically faulty. In addition, the electrical charge might ignite gaseous mixtures which can lead to a fire or explosion.

Damage to water pipes can also result to serious dangers or risks. There are pipelines that transport water under high pressures. As a result, damage to the pipeline releases high-pressure water and propel debris to people and equipment. Moreover, the release of water might flood the area and immerse the people and machinery. Worse, electrical current might flow through the ruptured or disconnected water pipe. The crew and consumers might get an electrical shock.

Other risks & dangers from telecom cables & sewer lines

Damage to electrical, gas, oil and water utilities often present the greatest dangers. But damages to other subsurface utilities also deserve equal attention.

For instance, damage to telecommunications cables seems a minor concern. However, the damage may actually cause isolation of an entire community from the rest of the world. In addition, contacting emergency services might become impossible due to connectivity disruptions. Also, hitting a cable that contains optical fibres may expose people to infrared beam that can damage their eyes. The small particles from these optical fibres might also enter the bloodstream and cause injuries and fatalities.

Damage to sewer lines might also propel debris (as with the case of hitting water pipelines). In addition, the leaking or spilling wastewater might contaminate the water supply. The sewage may also expose people to hazardous waste and gases.

Any hit or damage to this underground infrastructure often exposes the workers and people nearby to electrical, water, fire and health hazards. The effects get huge especially when using a backhoe and other powerful heavy equipment. One wrong hit and it might cause a major explosion or a fire hazard.

And as mentioned earlier, even minor damages should be taken seriously. Over time any damage gets worse and exposes people to countless risks and dangers. That’s why it’s good to terminate work immediately, see if anyone’s got hurt, apply safety measures and further identify the risks present in the site.

What to do if you hit an underground utility?

It’s always advisable to have a contingency and emergency plan before working near an underground asset. Take note that any damage or accident makes the site chaotic. Although emergency services are quick enough, the proactive approach is still the best. It’s good to have plans prepared for the chaos in case things don’t go well.

After ensuring everyone’s safety, contact the relevant asset owners immediately. Often they’re the ones who know best how to fix and control the damage. This way, they can also minimise service interruptions to residences and businesses in the area.

It may take some time before you can proceed again with the work. First, safety must be ensured and all risks should be re-identified. These risks can only be recognised if there’s an updated evaluation of the site (especially of the subsurface infrastructure).

For example, before commencing any excavation work, any indications of existing assets should all be noted (e.g. 100 metres along the footpath in each direction). Often there are markers that indicate presence of underground pipes and cables (plus drainage pits and manhole covers). However, these markers don’t provide complete information about the assets’ locations. After all, the paths of utilities often don’t follow a straightforward path.

On the other hand, certified Service Locators can provide complete information about underground assets. They can generate an accurate map that shows locations (including depth) of the existing subsurface assets in the area. They will also search for other signs and indications that there’s an underground in and near the job site. For instance, they will also note the locations of fire hydrants, water metres, sprinkler systems and road repair signs. They might also note the absence of overhead wires because this indicates that the cables were installed underground.

Whichever is the case, our certified Service Locators here at One Search Locators will provide you with a complete map of the subsurface infrastructure in your job site. Aside from clearly identifying the risks, accurate utility mapping has also helped speed up several construction and excavation projects.

Many engineers and managers contact us here at One Search Locators before they start construction or excavation work. This way, they can maintain the safety of their team and avoid damaging any underground asset. Contact us today for more information.