While I was doing research on underground utility safety, I happened on a website for the International Risk Management Institute, Inc. (IRMI), providing risk and insurance information to business, legal, risk management, and insurance professionals and was struck by the wealth of information it contained on a broad range of risk and safety subjects, including that for which I was searching.
To give you a flavor of what’s there, allow me to whet your appetite with some examples.
Know What’s Below, Call Before You Dig
Not too long ago, each state had an organization that contractors called when they needed to dig, and the states would send specialists (called “locators”) to determine and mark the location of buried utilities before digging began. With names like Dig-Safe in Massachusetts or Dig-Safely in New York, these organizations are now centralized in the United States in the form of the “811—Call before You Dig System,” coordinated by the Common Ground Alliance. This is one of the greatest accomplishments for underground safety in the United States. Contact www.call811.com for more information.
How the 811 System Works
Anyone anywhere in the United States can dial 811 or use the online service to notify utilities so they can “mark out” underground facilities. Always remember, you must call for these utilities to get marked, whether you are constructing a subway or driving a steel post to tether your Labrador retriever. It is free, it is easy, and it’s the law. As New York State puts it:
* You must call, regardless of where the excavation is located. Even if it is on private property, out in the middle of a field, or on a street that has no name ... you must call....
* You must call even if you are only excavating a few inches or just surface grading. If you move material ... you must call. (NYS Excavators Manual)
Each year, approximately 700,000 underground utility lines are struck during excavation work, according to the Common Ground Alliance, the group that provides training and education on underground hazards. The cost of one utility strike may rise to hundreds of thousands of dollars, and insurance will typically not cover that loss. Additional costs can be fines levied by the utility that can no longer provide service to its clients. These fees can range around $10,000 per hour for loss of service. If you shut down a hospital or stop work at a factory, you will likely pay for those losses, too.
Here are some guidelines to follow.
* It doesn't matter what you are doing—if you scratch the ground, plant a tree, anything—you must call.
* It doesn't matter where you are—in the middle of the woods, in a hayfield, or at Yosemite—you must call.
* Driving those steel stakes for a party tent? You must call.
* Even if you are confident that you know where something is buried (say, you installed the line), remember that many contractors dig up lines they have just buried. So be sure to call.
* If the lines are on private land or lead to a missile silo in Kansas, you must call.
* Don’t mark out the area with wooden stakes. Wooden stakes have been driven through gas lines. That is the reason you must use white paint or “feathers.”
* Not calling is a violation of the law and plays into the odds of the Underground Casino.
When planning to dig, walk your site. If there is a building, always walk the basement and look at each foundation wall. If there is a pipe, cable, or anything coming into the basement, there is an underground hazard outside. The following are indicators that something may be buried:
* Manholes—Steel covers can contain gas, electric, or sewer storm lines and plastic or composite (green or gray) communications.
* Warning signs—Often orange or yellow for gas or communications. You may also see TILE DRAIN, which indicates underground drainage.
* Overhead power lines—These are often on a right-of-way so underground utilities are often run down this "protected" corridor.
* Candy cane steel pipes—These are mostly yellow and provide airflow for a sleeved gas line below.
* Streetlights—Unless the power for these travels from post to post, they are buried between the posts.
* Traffic signals—These will have multiple feeds from power to the sensors in road surfaces and buttons you push to cross.
* Trees—Yes, when trees grow, they grow around buried utilities. When you remove the tree and the roots, the utilities will come up as well.
* Hydrants—This seems obvious, but the lines may not run directly from one to the next.
* Transformer pads—Typically, a 3-inch-by-4-inch green or gray steel box sits on a concrete slab. The lines leading to and from almost always are hidden underground.
* Meters—Outside of a house, with a pipe running into the ground, indicate gas or electric lines, likely from the street. 811 may or may not mark from the meter to the street, so hand digging is needed to confirm where the line is if you are digging in that area.
* Lines running up overhead power poles—If they lead from the ground, they are buried in the area.
* Lines or patches in pavement that don’t match the balance of the surface—When you run a new buried utility across blacktop, the color change in material is a great way to spot a buried hazard.
* Unknown markings—These often indicate something underground.
In general, the “penetrating contractor” calls 811 and asks for a “mark-out.” The excavator then outlines the exact work area in white paint or flags; some call them feathers. The utilities that have “facilities” in the buried area will come out and mark where their utilities are in their own specific color. If they do not have a buried utility, they note that as well, also in their specific color. Often it will look like “no gas CP+L 5/14/11.” If you are instructed that seven utilities have buried lines where you intend to dig, and all seven respond after a period of two to 10 days, it’s OK to start digging. If only six respond, you must call 811 again and coordinate with the last utility. If you take the chance in the hopes that they did not respond because they have nothing in the area, you are again gambling at the Underground Casino. The online e-ticket makes this process very easy, for they will identify exactly who will respond to mark out.
Always remember that the “penetrating contractor” contacts 811. General contractors can as well, but it’s not their responsibility. This is often misunderstood in the field. The general contractor can help plan and coordinate marking out the affected area, but it is always the excavator’s responsibility to call 811.
Free 811 Training
Take advantage of the free training that your local 811 provider gives. It is a great tool, for representatives will often travel to your firm to do the training, and most host a quarterly meeting of the local utility owners, those that do the markings, and excavators. Those presenting are truly experts, and they will do anything to help keep you from damaging their underground facilities.
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