Many projects require a shovel or other excavator – laying an irrigation system, installing a fence, landscaping, maintenance, and so on. While digging may seem like a fairly safe activity, pre-existing underground utility lines may pose hidden threats. According to the Common Ground Alliance, an underground utility line is damaged once every six minutes. This can cause costly utility service interruptions and serious injury to workers. April is National Safe Digging Month, so we’ve compiled some tips for how to conduct safe digging projects at your tribe or tribal enterprise.
What types of utilities exist underground?
To conduct a safe digging project, it is helpful to know what kinds of utilities might be present, as well as understand the risks involved if those utilities are damaged. Common utilities include:
Electrical – Many utilities utilize electricity in some form, such as power lines, lighting cables and so on.
Communication – These could include land lines, alarm lines and other communication cables or conduit.
Fuel – Various fuels such as natural gas, oil, steam, petroleum or other gaseous or flammable materials are often run underground.
Water – Many types of water such as potable, drain, reclaimed, irrigation, slurry and sewage all require piping to be transported to and from different access points.
What are the risks of damaging utilities?
Electrical – Damaging electrical utilities can result in power outages for nearby properties and have the potential to cause fires. Worst of all, workers have a high chance of being electrocuted, perhaps fatally.
Communication – In addition to cutting out communications services if damaged, these lines usually also rely on electricity, which poses the same threats listed above.
Fuel – Leaks caused by the damage of a fuel line can cause pollution of the surrounding area, as well as chemical injuries to workers and others nearby. Like electrical lines, a subsequent fire is also a serious risk when fuel lines are breached.
Water – Breaching one of these lines can cut off access to crucial water services, cause flooding, possibly pollute the surrounding area or contaminate potable water.
Tips for Conducting Safe Digging Projects
The best way to conduct a safe digging project is to “call before you dig”. This is the slogan of the national call service, 811. This organization analyzes property and marks pre-existing underground utilities so that your employees or contractors will be able to avoid damaging them. Some frequently asked questions on the 811 website include:
When do I need to call 811?
Any time before you dig. In many areas it is illegal to dig without verifying that the project will not encounter buried utilities first. Check your local laws and ordinances to see what the ruling is on calling 811 before digging.
What if my project is small?
Many utilities are buried only a few inches below ground, making them extremely easy to hit even for small or simple projects. In addition, utility lines are so widespread the odds of encountering them are high. Even if you are merely planting shrubs or installing a fence, calling 811 beforehand is a must.
What if utilities have been previously marked?
There are many conditions that can alter the location of underground utilities over time, such as erosion and root system growth. You must call even if the project is in the same location where utilities have been marked before.
What if I’m using a contractor?
Talk with your contractor to determine whether they will be responsible for calling 811 in advance of the project, or your tribe or tribal enterprise. Regardless of who makes the call, make sure to verify that the utilities have been properly marked before the contractor begins digging.
How far in advance do I need to call?
As with most things, the sooner the better. Calling well in advance will help ensure that your digging project is not unnecessarily delayed. You should call at least several business days before your project is scheduled to begin, however calling in as early as possible is always an excellent practice.
Why should I call?
Calling 811 helps prevent the many dangers of damaging a utility line outlined above. Conducting a responsible and well-researched dig protects both your property from damage, your workers or contractors from potential injury, and your local community from service loss.
The utilities on my property have been marked. Now what?
Even when utilities have been marked at your dig site, it is still a good idea to proceed with caution. Use the following tips while digging:
- Utilities are marked with color-coded flags. Be sure workers are aware of the color assignments before work begins. While there are universal utility color standards, be sure to double check that there are no region-specific variations in your area.
- If your project takes you close to a flag, dig carefully and slowly to make sure you don’t accidentally undo all the diligent preparation you’ve conducted.
- Leave plenty of space between your project and the flagged utility whenever possible. Dig around flags, not on them.
- Over time, erosion and root systems might shift the location of utilities. Keep this in mind when planning the site of your project so that any potential shifts in utility location do not interfere with whatever infrastructure or landscaping you are installing.
Remember, April is National Safe Digging Month! For more information on how to plan a safe dig, check out the following websites for additional resources. Don’t dig yourself into a hole with damaged utilities – always conduct a safe digging project by calling ahead!