How to Work Safely Near Underground Assets
Underground assets include active cables and pipes that allow flow of electricity, data, water, wastewater and petrochemicals (oil, petrol). The assets may also include abandoned or decommissioned pipes, cables and storage tanks.
Whether active or not, these assets pose safety risks to the workers and people surrounding the area. It’s especially the case when working on, near or adjacent of power lines. It’s a high risk construction work wherein any mistake could spell disaster. That’s why project managers and engineers acquire all the information necessary before starting any excavation work (especially when using powerful backhoes and other heavy equipment for excavation).
Dial Before You Dig & contacting the asset owners
This is the first step before commencing any excavation activity on the work area. This can start with visiting their website (http://www.dialbeforeyoudig.com.au/) or faxing an enquiry to 1300 652 077. You can then get records that will guide your team to stay safe while digging. It’s also good to contact the asset owners because they may provide recommended practices so your team can safely work near or on the location.
In case of emergency work and the records are not yet available, everyone should assume that underground assets are present even if there are no markings or any other information present. It’s especially the case in highly urbanised areas wherein there are complex networks of pipes and cables underground. Even if the area seems clear, underground utilities might still be present.
Rural areas still present some risks because often buried cables don’t follow a direct and straight path. Marker posts might be there and at first it seems the cables follow a direct path. But due to obstructions and other installation difficulties, the cables don’t follow a straight line when you connect the two marker posts.
We also have to consider the changes occurring through time. The asset owners’ plans might already be outdated. It’s also possible that the plans don’t include all the pipes and cables currently present in the area. New installations or relocations might have occurred through the years. These make the plans outdated or far from accurate.
In addition, the identities and locations of underground utilities (whether active or not) are only found out during the actual excavation work. The asset owner is then supplied with the missing information. However, this is still incomplete because other subsurface utilities might not still be located or identified.
What we need then is the most recent and accurate information before commencing excavation work. Old records might not be reliable anymore because of the possible natural and man-made changes that have occurred through the years. Also, those records might not accurately show the depth and alignment of the pipes and cables underground.
About electricity cables & water and sewer pipes
Whether the lines carry 230 volts or 400,000 volts, contact with an energised underground electric line can be fatal. Aside from the direct electrical shock, trips and falls might also result (and possible tipover of some tools and equipment). This may result to serious physical injuries to workers on or near the site.
It’s a similar case with water and sewer pipes. Impact to these pipes might release high pressure water and propel debris to the worker. Even the pressure from the water itself is enough to injure someone and possibly damage some materials, tools and equipment. Aside from the potential injuries and fatalities, damage to water and sewer pipes also results to long project delays (due to site flooding, inconvenience to the community).
Due to these safety risks, engineers and project managers often consult certified Service Locators for the accurate identities and locations of underground pipes and power lines. Although there are cable records that are drawn to scale or available in computer-based Geographic Information Systems (GIS), these records might not show the most accurate or recent information. It’s especially the case with older installations that were not accurately recorded or the reference details weren’t consistent with the present.
Aside from the cables themselves, we also have to consider the coating or covering of those underground cables. They might be covered with concrete slabs or other material that indicate that what’s inside are indeed power lines. However, there are some cases wherein the cables are encased in bitumen (also known as asphalt which when heated can release hazardous fumes). Whichever is the case, we should have an accurate map that clearly displays the path of the cables from end to end in our work site.
It’s also the case with locating water pipes. These pipelines might have been installed along with clear labels to indicate that these indeed are water pipes. However, both natural and man-made actions can damage those markings and labels. As a result, a pipeline section might seem harmless because it looks like dirt. But when powerful machinery hits it, everyone will be surprised with the propelled water and debris. In addition, even slight damage to these water pipes poses serious health risks to the workers in the site. For instance, many steel and cast iron pipes are still joined with lead. Slight impact to those joints might allow release of lead into the water or air.
Work safely near underground assets
For safe work near the underground cables and pipes, the identities, locations and depths of those assets should be determined beforehand. Old records might already be outdated and the markings often don’t convey the full information. The path the pipes and cables follow are often far from direct and straight. Also, changes through the years (e.g. new installations, relocation, removal of decommissioned assets) might have made the records obsolete and the positions of the subsurface utilities totally different.
That’s why certified Service Locators now use modern methods and technologies to map the subsurface infrastructure. Often they use electromagnetic and radar technologies to trace the path of pipes and power lines. Basically, these technologies make the use of signals which are then sent and interpreted when these come back. Whether the working environment is wet or dry, there’s an appropriate method or technology to map the underground utility lines.
Whether the underground assets are in active operation or already decommissioned, these should all be located prior to performing any excavation work. If possible, potholing should be done to expose those underground lines. But this still starts with locating and mapping those subsurface utility lines so potholing can be efficiently and strategically done.
Once the locations, depths and identities of the underground assets are accurately determined, it’s then time to perform the actual digging. Safety precautions are still in place especially when performing manual digging or excavation with the use of a powerful backhoe. But the whole task gets safer and faster because workers already know where to pay special attention. The whole excavation activity could also be properly planned according to the locations and depths of the underground assets.
The main goal is to keep the workers safe in the project site. Secondary is the prevention of damage to the underground assets because it can result to major interruptions to the residential and commercial activities in the area. Third, it’s about maximising speed and efficiency. With timely and accurate information, you can better plan for all these for your excavation work.
That’s why here at One Search Locators, we’re committed to promptly and accurately determining the identities, locations and depths of underground power lines and water and sewer pipes. We also map the locations and positions of telecommunication cables and gas pipes. Damage to these lines could lead to major inconveniences to your workers and everyone in the community. We even locate underground storage tanks especially if the site is a former industrial or petrochemical facility. Damage and impact to those tanks could result to explosions and fires.
To protect you and your workers from those risks, you should have complete information about those underground assets. Whether it’s an energised electricity cable or a decommissioned storage tank, they all pose safety risks and health hazards to the workers.
Here at One Search Locators we can take care of locating and mapping the entire subsurface infrastructure in your work site. Together, we can identify all the risks in your work area. Then, you and your whole team can formulate accurate plans to keep the work safe and more efficient for everyone.
Contact us today and we’ll arrive on your site within 24 hours upon your request. We can also provide you with a free quote along with a description and scope of our services. We service Sydney, Newcastle, Wollongong, Melbourne and surrounds.
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