Underground Utilities: The Hidden Dangers

untitledExamples of construction accidents involving underground utility pipelines are unfortunately not difficult to find. In one such incident, a cable company struck a high-pressure, plastic gas service pipeline, resulting in a natural gas leak. Approximately 40 minutes later, while utility workers and emergency response personnel were assessing the situation, an explosion occurred where 4 people were fatally injured. Six buildings were destroyed.

Due to the extreme danger of these types of accidents, OSHA’s 29 CFR 1926.651 standard establishes specific excavation requirements designed to protect employees and prevent accidental damage to underground utility installations.

The most important of these requirements is that the estimated location of utility installations, such as sewer, telephone, fuel, electric, water lines, or any other underground installations that reasonably may be expected to be encountered during excavation work, should be determined prior to opening an excavation.

The requirements also include:

◾Contacting utility companies or owners within established or customary local response times. When utility companies or owners cannot respond to a request to locate underground utility installations within 24 hours or cannot establish the exact location of these installations, the employer may proceed with caution using detection equipment or other acceptable means to locate utility installations;

◾When approaching the estimated location of underground installations, the exact location of the underground installations shall be determined by safe and acceptable means; and

◾While the excavation is open, underground installations shall be protected, supported, or removed as necessary to safeguard employees.

OSHA emphasizes that if an underground utility is damaged, the utility operator is in the best position to determine the hazards associated with the damage and implement appropriate countermeasures. OSHA recommends that the excavator notify the utility operator promptly. If the damage results in the release of hazardous gases or liquids, both the utility operator and appropriate emergency response officials should be notified immediately.

See our past blogs regarding confined spaces and for all your construction safety needs, contact us for a complimentary safety audit.

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