Richard Broome discusses his thoughts on the subject of safe digging underground in confined spaces, how the UK’s industry is currently performing, and solutions for reducing asset strikes.

Underground pipes and cables are by their very nature located in confined spaces. Accidentally hitting an underground asset during digging work can have significant and long lasting effects on the person involved, and those around them.

That said – and of course I will delve into these risks and how to prevent accidents in more detail later in this article – it is worth keeping in mind that whether or not a strike takes place, workers in these environments are still subject to the risks and rigmaroles of working in confined spaces. If broader issues of confined space safety are not first addressed, the brutal fact is that workers may not survive in the environment for long enough to worry about hitting (or not) an underground asset. So, not to teach anyone how to suck eggs, but please humour me for a moment as I begin by covering the basics. They may seem obvious to many, but considering the shocking numbers of confined space deaths annually it clearly isn’t obvious to everyone. Here’s hoping the message gets through this time.

What is a confined space

Answers on a postcard, please! I jest. As I’m sure many of you are able to recount, while sounding drudgingly akin to a bored school child at assembly time, a confined space is a place which is substantially enclosed (though not always entirely), and where serious injury can occur from hazardous substances or conditions within the space or nearby.

“And what is it that makes these enclosed little spaces so incredibly hazardous?” I hear you ask, curious as to why on earth George Clarke has such an affinity for tiny little buildings if small spaces really are as dangerous as people claim. Well for one, the ‘amazing spaces’ of George Clarke fame generally have enough access, and don’t present a hazardous environment once inside. “Confined spaces” on the other hand, not only feature restricted access, but also have the potential once ‘in’ to cause serious injury or death, through hazards such as:

– Flammable or explosive atmospheres

– Harmful gas, fume or vapour

– Free flowing solid or an increasing level of liquid

– Excess, or lack, of oxygen

– Excessively high temperature

And just to conclude this George Clarke themed point, the spaces themselves can be copious; for example, a ship’s hull or grain silo are confined spaces, since the not only is the access/exit point restricted, but once inside, the aforementioned hazards may be present.

“if broader issues of confined space safety are not first addressed, workers may not survive”

How to stay safe

Don’t go into confined spaces! Top of the list, hands down the safest way is to take the most obvious, elephant in the room-style route, and design risk out of the equation. Hierarchy of controls rule number one, right there. Of course, that may not come as the most welcome suggestion if your job can only be carried out within a confined space, so let’s explore the other options.

Gas detection

Gas detection, whether personal and portable or fixed for ambient monitoring, is essential for confined spaces. And do you know what else is essential? Knowing how to use it. Much like in professional fighting, gases come in at different weights, or Specific Gravities (SG) if we’re being technical. So having a gas detector is one thing, but measure at floor level for, say, methane, will get you about as far as Connor McGregor went against Dustin Poirier. That’s knocked out, in case you’re not following the wrestling analogy.
The reason this won’t get you very far at all is, since this gas is lighter than air, you must be sure to measure for the gas high up within the space. Conversely, carbon dioxide – being heavier than air – lurks down low, so measure for this low down in the space. For more on specific gravities and confined space safety, have a read of this:

Don’t be a hero

A staggering number of confined space deaths are those of would-be rescuers. It is therefore imperative to only enter a confined space once fully protected, and in the knowledge that you can get out again safely – working in a confined space shouldn’t be a suicide mission.

Respiratory protection

Having the right respiratory protection – and knowing how to use it – could not be any more important than when faced with the challenges of a confined space.

For more information specific to your industry and hazards, the UK’s Health & Safety Executive (hse.gov.uk) is packed with lifesaving information.

That’s a strike out

Now the broad dangers of confined spaces are dealt with, however, it’s still essential that the public and those involved in excavation work fully understand the implications that come with hitting gas, water, oil and chemical pipelines or electricity and broadband cables, and know how to prevent strikes from happening.

Hitting an asset

Seventy-one percent of all digging work that takes place in the UK is now preceded by a thorough search for pipes and cables through our portal. However, according to our Digging up Britain report, in 2019 alone there were 1,230 safety-related electrical incidents reported to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), of which 73 were assigned as being injury-related. In addition, while the number of gas-related incidents has been in decline since 2013, there were still 1,248 reported in 2019.

There’s little doubt that the increased number of searches going through the LSBUD system have drastically helped to reduce the likelihood of such incidents occurring, but there is still room for improvement. People need to remember that by undertaking work with limited, or no prior knowledge of what is beneath them, there is a real risk of injury or even fatality.

Financial

Whilst health and safety has to be the number one focus when it comes to avoiding pipes and cables being hit, other ramifications need to be discussed. Underground assets need to be repaired when they’ve been hit and the indirect costs, such as traffic disruption and loss of custom to local businesses, have to be factored into that repair bill.

According to research by the University of Birmingham, the true cost of an asset strike is 29 times the direct cost; so, for every £1,000 of direct repair cost arising from a utility strike, the actual cost is £29,000.

Brand Impact

As well as the human and financial impact, an asset strike can also result in considerable damage to the asset owner. Irrespective of who’s responsible, disruption to any service affects customer perception, and thanks to social media, a complaint can quickly reach a mass audience.

Where are the dangers coming from?

In 2019, the LSBUD portal received 317,000 ‘emergency searches’, which was a 59 percent jump on the previous year and 197 percent up on just two years ago. If the searches going through our system are indicative of the work that’s taking place more widely, this is a key consideration for health and safety professionals as emergency projects are more likely to result in an asset strike of a more severe nature.

Even though the LSBUD system delivers results in less than five minutes, if a pipe or cable network is not registered on the portal, the firm doing the digging will need to deal with the asset owner directly. This can take up to 28 days, which is not a timescale that fits with the idea of an ‘emergency’. This leads to corners being cut, and assets being hit, due to the need for speed.
It’s also useful to know that the majority of digging work comes from the telecoms sector, with its contractors and operators completing 911,455 searches and making up 32 percent of all searches in 2019. The water industry followed with 592,126 searches, accounting for 21 percent of the total.

Searches from private individuals increased by 10 percent and the system saw a 42 percent surge in agricultural businesses making enquiries.

To keep all these workers and the general public safer, those responsible for health and safety must do two things. Firstly, they should champion the cause of sharing network information, encouraging all utility companies who are not currently sharing their information via a central portal to do so. Secondly, they should encourage thorough infrastructure searches for every job.

“in 2019, the LSBUD portal received 317,000 ‘emergency searches’, which was a 59 percent jump on the previous year”

The solution

Simply put, the first step to solving the problem is having all asset owners on LSBUD’s free, central portal, and having anyone undertaking digging work searching for what’s beneath before a spade or digger hits the ground.

This would make the visibility of the UK’s underground pipes and cables network 100 percent complete, meaning that as long as a search was performed before digging there would be a much lower chance of mistakes being made.

Currently, LSBUD has just over 60 percent of the utility providers in the UK as members, meaning over 1 million kilometres of the UK’s 1.5 million kilometres of underground pipes and cables are covered by the system. The remaining utility companies need to recognise
that there is protection to be gained by being part of the herd. The larger the number of asset owners sharing their information on the portal, the greater the number of searches every asset owner will appear in. If those responsible for health and safety within underground asset-owning organisations haven’t been pushing to register with our free portal, they ought to be asking themselves why. It’s the single most important action to take when it comes to protecting people digging in the UK.

Case studies

As a result of dedicated asset sharing and a commitment to searching before digging, asset owners are seeing a big reduction in the damage that their networks receive.

For example, before Portsmouth Water – which supplies drinking water to a domestic population exceeding 698,000 – joined LSBUD, it was receiving an average of 2,500 third-party mapping requests per year. In 2020, between early April and the middle of June, having joined the portal, Portsmouth Water responded to over 4,500 requests, coming in from a range of sources, including fellow utility companies, developers, and local authorities.

Further to this, in September alone, Portsmouth Water registered over 4,000 mapping requests, nearly double the number of searches that it received the previous year. These numbers are even more impressive given the impact COVID-19 has had on the UK’s economy and the construction industry, with muchreduced work taking place.

Since implementing the LSBUD service in April, Portsmouth Water has seen the visibility of its network improve by nearly 2,000 percent, ensuring its assets are better protected from third party damage than ever before.

It’s not just water companies that can benefit from asset sharing; all asset owners can. This is something that UK Power Networks (UKPN)
realised by joining the collaborative LSBUD portal. UKPN is England’s biggest distribution network operator for electricity covering South East England, the East of England and London. It manages three licenced distribution networks which together cover an area of 30,000 km2, keeping the lights on for approximately eight million people.

Prior to joining LSBUD, UKPN was providing asset plans via its own systems and via print, a lengthy process. Now, UKPN responds to many more enquiries online, making the process quicker, improving customer service and reducing the number of asset strikes.

With all of its underground electricity network plans held in one central system, UKPN can now rapidly provide relevant infrastructure information to construction workers, contractors, and the general public, whilst also providing wider access to its entire network. This means those doing the digging have much greater insight into the network they are operating near, allowing workers and assets to be kept far safer than ever before.

“as a result of asset sharing and searching before digging, asset owners are seeing a big reduction in the damage that their networks receive”

By the end of 2019, UKPN was receiving up to 70,000 enquiries per month through LSBUD, which is a 250 percent increase year on year since it first became a Member, and exponentially higher that the number of enquiries received before this.

By using the data provided by LSBUD, UKPN is now able to futureproof other projects within the business, identify the most ‘at risk’ areas, prepare for damage claims and ensure its network is safer and more robust than ever.

What about data protection?

The security of data is one area where companies can feel a little uncomfortable, which is understandable given everyone’s concerns about data breaches. However, it’s important to point out that our portal doesn’t actually need a Member’s data in order to function, we can simply let them know who is requesting their data and allow them to decide on how to handle it. LSBUD Members are always notified about every search, and they remain in complete control of what happens to their data and who can access it.

Digging industry performance

The UK does need to clean up its act when it comes to the reporting of damage to assets. Without regulation – which I push for – it’s difficult to know how many strikes are incurred each year, what caused them or how much they cost.

Still, we’re able to make a pretty good prediction on what the UK’s asset strike rate is. It’s often said that the UK receives around 60,000 strikes each year, but I see no reason to believe this is even vaguely accurate. And even if it is – what does that mean? To answer this, let’s take 10,000, 50,000 and 100,000 as potential numbers for the amount of strikes that occur in the UK each year. Based on LSBUD’s 2.8 million enquiries made per annum, you get the following strike/enquiry ratios:

  • 10,000 strikes – 0.36 percent strike rate (over 99 percent of excavations take place without incident)
  • 50,000 strikes – 1.79 percent strike rate (over 98 percent of excavations take place without incident)
  • 100,000 strikes – 3.57 percent strike rate (over 96 percent of excavations take place without incident)

So, even if we take the ‘worst case scenario’, more than 96 out of every 100 jobs are undertaken without incident in the UK.

In conclusion

The safe digging industry is making significant process, reaching a ‘tipping point’, both for the safety of the UK’s underground assets and those
who dig near them. While LSBUD isn’t all that the industry needs to progress – surveyors, engineering contractors and behavioural scientists have a significant role to play – it’s a huge credit to the health and safety profession that asset searching on LSBUD’s portal has rapidly become second nature for people.

What still needs to happen is education, education, education. The best thing for the safe digging industry is a sustained effort to raise awareness amongst all asset providers on the benefits of sharing the location of their networks. As well as this, it’s critical that we keep reminding people how vital it is to search before you dig.