Digging Safely: A Guide to Preventing Underground Damage

Large-scale infrastructural ventures often entail digging and excavating underground. Civil engineers and contractors have to ensure safe digging to avoid penalties, lawsuits, and delayed completion of projects.

As we have written previously, a number of utility companies lay their infrastructure buried under the ground. These range from gas pipelines to broadband cables and water & sewerage mains. If your project involves excavation or digging, it’s crucial to make sure that you do not cause damage to this fragile subterranean infrastructure.

Let’s now look at how you can minimize and prevent damage to these utilities so that you can avoid penalties and delayed completion of projects.  

Why Digging Safely is Important

Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) lists state-wise reports related to excavation damage and a summary of damage prevention laws. PHMSA also enforces minimum federal damage prevention standards in states where damage prevention law enforcement is inadequate.

As a civil engineer or a contractor, you must abide by the underground damage prevention laws mandated by relevant state authorities. These laws help prevent pipeline accidents that often cause fatalities and injuries, and significant loss and damage to property and the environment.

Usually, you will need to meet the excavator requirements, ensure that you have operator response in place, and make compliance reports regularly.

Understanding the Risks of Underground Damage

Underground damage can occur due to excavation and digging without having a clear picture of what lies below the ground. Solely depending on 811 reports, outdated municipal maps, and inadequate information from utility companies carry a variety of risks. All these sources of information are not updated in real-time, and most of them are inaccurate, as mentioned in a previous blog.

Digging haphazardly can result in the following:

  • Injuries and fatalities: Serious injuries and fatalities may occur to workers when they dig around loose soil. Excavation destabilizes surrounding soil and structures and results in cave-ins and collapses.
  • Exposure to toxic fumes and chemicals: If your workers need to remain underground, it is essential to know if there are explosive gasses or toxic chemicals they can get exposed to.
  • Damage to underground utilities: We have written extensively about how excavating and digging based on outdated information can damage underground utilities such as water, gas, electricity, and natural gas pipelines.
  • Soil erosion: Not having a clear picture of the geology can result in damage to the soil structure. Excavating carelessly can result in slope instability and landslides.
  • Contamination of groundwater: Breaking sewer pipelines can contaminate underground water, while sewage can also seep into water mains, resulting in deadly infections and illnesses.
  • Damage to nearby structures: Excavations cause a lot of vibrations. This can result in damage to property and other nearby structures. It is vital to know how firm the ground is before beginning to dig.
  • Exceeding budgets: Your budget may overrun due to repairs and replacements as a result of damage to underlying utilities. You may also have to pay penalties as recommended by regulatory bodies, if they think the damage is serious enough. This is most probably when environmental contamination occurs.
  • Delays in project completion: Your schedule may be in disarray when your resources and focus is diverted towards repairing and replacing damaged utilities. Making sure beforehand that you’ve taken protective measures, including mapping existing utilities to avoid damage to them, will ensure timely completion of projects.

In short, having prior knowledge about what lies underground can eliminate fatalities and injuries and protect the environment and property. Most importantly, you can comply with PHMSA regulations and proceed with your project without any hurdles.

Planning Your Excavation Project in Texas or California

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2020, there were approximately 26,530 workers employed in excavation and trenching occupations in California. In Texas, this figure was 18,760. This clearly indicates that there are many excavation-related jobs in these states, and you need to adequately plan your digging activity to ensure worker safety and meet other regulations.

PHMSA's National Pipeline Mapping System (NPMS) provides information about pipelines in your area in California. However, it is also necessary to call 811, just like you have to in Texas. Like Texas, California also has a vast network of underground natural gas pipelines. Hence, ensuring you have adequate information about underground utilities is very important. Before you begin excavating either in Texas or California, you will need to do the following:

  • Obtain the necessary permits. In both states, you must submit detailed plans and designs regarding your project and obtain approvals.
  • As California and Texas hold a labyrinth of pipelines, make sure that you hire qualified excavation contractors.
  • Conduct a site assessment to identify hazards such as unstable soil, environmental impacts, etc. You can also use 4M's mapping solutions to get real-time data regarding what lies underground.
  • Implement appropriate safety protocols so that everyone's needs are taken care of.
  • Make sure that excavation contractors, regulator agencies, project managers, and everyone else is kept in the loop. Open communication channels ensure the speedy completion of projects.

Locating and Marking Underground Utilities

Locating and marking underground utilities is a critical step before any excavation work begins.

Here are the essential steps to locate and mark underground utilities before excavation:

  • Contact local utility companies and inform them regarding your project.
  • Request for a map or any other relevant information.
  • Call 811 and seek permission to dig. 811 then liaises with utility owners who send their locators to identify their utilities, and flag their locations. Once all utilities have been flagged and painted, the 811 allows the excavator to begin the project. This process may differ slightly across states.  
  • Use a utility locator tool to verify the marking.
  • Follow proper excavation procedures to prevent damage to underground utilities.
  • Report any damage that occurs so that utility companies and government authorities can take the necessary steps to undo the damage.

The American Public Works Association (APWA) has established a uniform color code for marking underground utilities. These include:

  • Red - Electrical infrastructure
  • Yellow: Gas and petroleum-related pipelines
  • Orange: Communication-related infrastructure
  • Blue: Potable water
  • Green: Sewer and drain lines
  • Purple: Reclaimed water, irrigation, and slurry lines
  • Pink: TUnknown or unidentified facilities
  • White: Proposed excavation limits or route

Please read this article we wrote a while ago to understand what each color-coded flag means in detail.

Excavation Equipment Safety

Before using any excavation equipment, make sure to follow the following precautions:

  • Read and understand the manufacturer's instructions and safety guidelines.
  • Train and certify the operators and workers
  • Conduct regular inspections and maintenance of your equipment
  • Provide safety gear to your workers, such as hard hats, safety glasses, earplugs, gloves, and steel-toed boots.
  • Use non-conductive materials when excavating near power lines
  • Use proper shoring and other protective measures while operating near slopes and trenches
  • Always remember to have access to real-time underground utility maps.

Locating and Marking Underground Utilities

The following steps help you locate and mark underground utilities before taking up excavation-related work.

  • Gain access to real-time mapping solutions: These provide accurate and real-time information of new constructions, abandoned and old utilities, geological condition, etc.
  • Locate facilities on time: Make sure that you call up 811 on time, and also liaise with utility companies before submitting your project proposals. Usually, there is minimal time gap between getting information and approvals.
  • Maintain open communication channels: Excavators need to be able to communicate with you if something goes wrong. Please ensure they are part of your project in its entirety until the excavation is completed.
  • Use technology to identify high-priority areas: Some locations may need extra excavation effort and time. Areas with loose soil, multiple utility lines, and proximity to built structures can influence the priority.
  • Practice safety standards: You should ensure the safety of your workers, staff, and people close to the excavation site. In addition, you should safeguard utility infrastructure so that accidents, damage, or contamination do not occur.
  • Adopt a realistic approach to 811: 811 isn't always updated, and you need access to a real-time mapping solution. However, it is a legal requirement to call 811 in Texas and California. Hence, make sure you call up 811 but also choose a software solution such as 4M's mapping solution.
  • Learn from past utility accidents and damages: You may take a look at PHMSA's heat map, which displays a list of pipeline accidents and incidents that took place due to excavation damage.

Handling Emergencies and Accidents During Excavation

Use quick thinking, but rely on an established protocol to handle accidents and other emergencies. The following points can help you eliminate further damage:

  • Stop work immediately and evacuate your workers.
  • Secure the area to prevent further injury or damage. Notify utility companies so that they can fix if something is beyond your means.
  • Call emergency services (911) and notify relevant personnel such as project managers, liaison officers, authorities, etc.
  • Administer first aid and CPR to injured personnel. Emotional comfort may be necessary, too, especially if communities nearby are affected.
  • Investigate the cause of the incident. Interview witnesses, collect forensic evidence, and examine excavation equipment.
  • Report the incident to relevant authorities, such as regulatory bodies. Follow procedures required by the law.
  • Implement corrective measures to prevent similar incidents and train your personnel accordingly.

Post-Excavation Procedures and Inspections

Post-excavation procedures and inspections help ensure that the excavation site is safe and that potential hazards have been addressed. After excavation, the following steps help:

  • Backfill the site and compact the soil to prevent settling.
  • Remove all the debris, materials, and equipment from the excavation site.
  • Double-check to ensure there are no hazards, such as loose soil or holes into which people can fall
  • Conduct utility checks to ensure all infrastructure is in proper condition
  • Conduct a final survey of the excavation site and make sure that everything was completed according to the approved plan
  • Submit final documentation and report to regulatory bodies, utility companies, and other relevant agencies.

Legal Requirements for Digging Safely

Let us quickly summarize the legal requirements to dig safely.

  • Obtain all the necessary permits and approvals from regulatory bodies
  • Call 811 and ensure you get access to their version of the utility map. Bear in mind this usually needs to be updated. Hence, access a real-time mapping solution like the one we provide.
  • Mark utilities using color-coded flags.
  • Comply with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards to ensure worker safety.
  • Secure the excavation site with appropriate barriers to prevent unauthorized access and accidents.
  • Keep a record of all excavation activities, permits received, and other such documentation.

Use Real-time Mapping Solutions to Excavate Safely

Digging or excavating is a complex procedure that can have manifold ramifications. Unplanned excavations can cause fatalities and injuries to workers, while causing environmental and property damage around the excavation site.

Moreover, there are legal and regulatory compliance requirements that civil engineers and contractors must meet. Although 811 and utility companies may provide some information related to underground infrastructure, you do not get accurate and real-time data related to utilities, underground conditions, and geological information.

4M's mapping solution offers you real-time information that makes excavation projects seem like a walk in the park. Most importantly, you avoid hefty penalties and ensure that your workers and nearby communities are safe. To learn how our solutions can help you excavate safely, contact us today.

Interested in seeing how utility mapping can help your next project? Contact us

Tamar Shafrir

A dedicated researcher that doesn’t stop investigating until she reaches the truth, no matter how hard it is to accept or comprehend (and there are a lot of those in our industry). Tamar took her first career steps in architecture and design, both as a practitioner and a journalist. Throughout her journey, her curiosity has taken her all across the globe, from North America through Europe to the Middle East, discovering and explaining the micro and macro challenges of the industry. Today she focuses most of her efforts on unlocking the challenges of the subsurface, through research and education. If you’re not following her on LinkedIn yet - you should.