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Excavating Safely Around Buried Utilities

Excavating safely around buried utilities

In 2017, there were about 439,000 excavation-related damages to underground facilities, according to the most recent Damage Information Reporting Tool (DIRT) report published by the Common Ground Alliance (CGA). While these damages were up by 5.5% from the previous year, CGA found that the increase was in proportion with increases in construction spending and utility locate notifications from one call centers.

So while excavation-related damages to underground facilities are not increasing at a rate faster than that of excavation activity, the number remains high year after year. Because these often preventable mistakes can be costly and even fatal, it is important for excavators to do everything in their power to know the locations of buried utilities and understand the steps they can take to prevent damages on the job site.

updated-pie-chartIn Wisconsin, the first line of defense for preventing damages to underground facilities is Diggers Hotline, Inc. (DHL), or 811. This is the state’s one-call system, which excavators can use to notify all utility members of upcoming excavation projects. Each relevant utility may then locate and mark its underground facilities at the dig site.

Once utilities are marked, it is up to the excavator to respect those marks, use caution when digging anywhere near buried utilities, and report any damages—no matter how small.

As indicated on the pie chart, 52.5% of damage reports where a root cause is listed specify “insufficient excavation practices” as the root cause. Another 23.5% were due to notification never being made. In other words, about 75% of damages can be prevented by the excavator.

Why call 811?

First and foremost, in Wisconsin, it is required by law to provide advance notice by calling 811 at least three business days prior to digging. (In an emergency excavation, the contractor must notify facility owners as promptly as possible and avoid interfering with existing facilities to the extent possible.) Moreover, by having buried utilities marked, excavators can greatly reduce the probability of damages caused by striking underground utilities.

Once the excavator has provided advance notice, DHL creates a ticket and coordinates with all facility owners that have underground facilities within the excavation area of the ticket. Next, “locate technicians” use existing records and electromagnetic utility locating equipment to locate and mark underground facilities using color-coded stakes, flags, and paint.

Excavator Responsibilities as Required by Wisconsin Law

To help protect property, workers, and community members on or near the job site, Wisconsin law holds excavators responsible for the following:

  • Provide advance notice via 811 at least three working days before the start of a non-emergency excavation
  • When emergency excavation is needed, take all reasonable precautions to avoid interfering with existing facilities in the area, and notify facility owners as promptly as possible
  • Provide repeat notice to one-call system if: (1) marks are destroyed or covered by excavation site activities; (2) excavation does not start within 10 days of the scheduled start date; or (3) excavation is interrupted for more than 10 days
  • Provide support for existing transmission facilities in the area that may be necessary or that is specified by the transmission facility owner, unless protection is required by the owner of the transmission facility under s. 66.0831.
  • Before backfilling, inspect any facilities that were exposed during excavation for any indication of having been struck, damaged, dislocated, or disrupted
  • Refrain from backfilling until inspection has been made and any necessary repairs have been made by the owner of the transmission facility
  • Notify transmission facility owner immediately if a facility has been or may have been struck, damaged, dislocated, or disrupted and, if flammable, toxic, or corrosive gas or liquid has escaped that may endanger life, cause bodily harm, or result in damage or property, promptly make a report to the 911 emergency telephone number
  • Backfill an excavation as specified by facility owners or in a manner and with materials that will protect and provide reliable support to transmission facilities during and following backfilling
  • Maintain a minimum clearance of 18 inches between a marking for an unexposed underground transmission facility and the cutting edge or point of any power-operated excavating or earthmoving equipment, except as is necessary at the beginning of the excavation process to penetrate and remove the surface layer of pavement

Additional Tips for Excavating Safely Around Buried Utilities

  • Do not dig before the start time specified on the DHL ticket
  • Look closely for indications of unmarked facilities, such as gas valve covers
  • Hand dig to expose facilities before crossing
  • Do not attempt to repair damaged utilities on your own
  • Be aware of overhead wires
  • Make sure a watchdog or inspector is on site for high priority facilities in the dig area

To discuss these and many other actionable strategies excavators can use to prevent damage to underground utilities, join us for our December 6th seminar. Additionally, led by Andrew LaTona, Operations Supervisor at We Energies, attendees will also learn more about Wisconsin’s Diggers Hotline as well as the underground facility location and marking process. Click here to register