Murray Peat, Manager at Linewatch, the leading pipeline safety and awareness group, discusses the elements to consider in order to work safely near pipelines, how it works in practice, and the services to use to ensure people and underground assets remain safe at all times.
Over the last 20 years, the volume of digging taking place has risen dramatically to accommodate advancements in broadband, EV charging, smart motorways, and the post-pandemic push on large scale infrastructure to rebuild the UK economy. This has had a significant impact on the network of underground gas pipelines running the length and breadth of the UK. Despite being in situ for more than half a century, the amount of excavation work taking place increases the risk posed on these systems. If a pipeline sustains damage, large or small, it must be temporarily shut down. Sometimes this can be for prolonged periods, which has a substantial impact on the customers who rely on the pipes to carry oil, gas, and other commodities. In addition, gas leakages can have awful consequences, not only for the environment, but also the human population within a short distance of the leak.
“the more digging that takes place, the higher the chances a pipeline gets hit”
As technology continues to innovate and new machinery gets developed, projects that would once have been dug by hand, over many days, can now be completed in hours or less. The introduction of this expertise and equipment also allows for much deeper digs, increasing the risk to underground networks. These technological advancements are total success stories to the majority, but this is not the case for many pipeline operators. The more digging that takes place, the higher the chances a pipeline gets ‘hit’, leading to serious injury, as well as irreversible environmental damage.
This problem is also exacerbated by the speed at which these projects are being completed. Contractors are now working to exceptionally tight deadlines, meaning the correct safe digging procedures are not always being put in place in the name of speed. What is clear, is that work is expected to be completed faster than ever before, however, ignoring regulations and not contacting the appropriate operators should never be seen as best practice. When completing any digging work, which can be anything from installing a fence to constructing a new skyscraper, if you are working near a pipeline, you must take suitable and preventative action.
The correct processes
Operators need to know about any works taking place within 50m of one of their pipelines, no matter the size of the job. By liaising with the relevant operator, it will quickly be apparent if one of their pipelines is going to affect a project. All works, except certain routine agricultural jobs, require pre-notification, including subsoiling, removing and planting trees, and property extensions. Therefore, it is important to notify the correct authorities. Strict controls are applied to all third party works that could affect the pipeline. For the Linewatch member, these include providing a minimum of three working days’ notice to the operator before the commencement of any works within 3m of a pipeline (the easement), although National Grid requires at least seven days. This needs to be considered at the planning stages and factored into the build time. In addition, all works occurring within the 3m easement should be attended by the pipeline operator or their agent and should not begin without the written authority and supervision of this representative. To have someone on-site, there is unlikely to be a charge for the first three days, beyond this any costs may be recovered from the organiser.
“damaging a high-pressure pipeline can result in serious injury, and even fatalities”
The simplest way to understand what pipelines might impact your project is through LSBUD. This is a free-to-use service that can be used to check works against over 100 asset owners’ underground networks, including many gas services such as BPA, E.ON, and INEOS. By providing just a few details, you will quickly have access to information regarding the assets near your sites, ensuring that you are as well prepared as possible before starting any works.
If you don’t follow the correct protocols, it could result in serious issues. Damaging a high-pressure pipeline can result in serious injury, and even fatalities, as well as irreversible damage to the natural environment. There are also the cost implications to consider; the estimated cost of hitting these pipelines could be as high as £15 million.
What does this mean in practice?
It is important to be aware that this can happen to anyone. Preparation and following the protocols is the only way of avoiding significant issues from occurring. Although large scale incidents are becoming less frequent, close calls are still commonplace, which should not be the case.
An incident in Scotland recently took place which seriously risked the safety of two pipelines and all those on-site. A crew had started to excavate a blocked telecoms duct, despite lacking the correct plans for the project. By the time representatives of the pipelines in question had arrived on site, work was already well underway near a high-pressure pipeline. Work was immediately halted, having only been alerted to the incident as a sensor had tripped, leading to an aircraft being dispatched to survey the issue from overhead. Having seen the work taking place, some of the team were sent to assess the ongoing risk of the project.
Upon further inspection, it was clear that the area was marked with marker posts which indicated the appropriate actions to take before excavation should start. Despite some contractors following this protocol, others had not, making the process incomplete and increasing the risk of pipeline damage. As a result, all working activities were halted, and the excavation was backfilled and sealed with temporary surfacing while an investigation took place. This incident was located close to two pipelines on the edge of Loch Lomond. Without intervention, serious damage to the environment was likely and could have been detrimental to the local area.
This incident could have easily been avoided if it wasn’t for human error and complacency. It can feel tempting to continue working despite the obvious risks, with the ‘it won’t happen to me’ mentality, but any damage to these pipelines can be hugely detrimental. In this case, the contractors had plenty of warnings that pre-work notification was essential but chose to ignore them. Not doing so caused delays. Had the correct procedures been followed and factored in, the project would not have been held up. This was largely down to a simple lack of knowledge.
“some signs of a possible gas pipeline leak include dirt or dust blowing in the air, or hissing sounds”
Organisations, including Linewatch, exist to raise awareness of safe working practices and the high-pressure pipelines that projects may encounter.
A large part of this is done through presentations which are provided for free to utility contractors involved in planning and undertaking works close to a members’ pipelines. They highlight the networks in an area to be aware of and the working practices to follow to ensure that injury to people, and risk to the environment or pipelines, is prevented.
All pipeline operators will provide free information and advice on their assets and what to avoid when it comes to staying safe on-site. With the help of LSBUD, it is simple to locate pipelines and clear responses can be given to resolve any issues. Operators will also provide free on-site advice and supervision whenever third parties are working closely to their pipelines, making the process of avoiding incidents very simple.
All the information provided to LSBUD is used to help landowners and companies prevent any future incidents during digging projects. Checking for markers is a simple way to avoid any issues, and they are easy to identify and understand by clearly providing all of the contact information needed.
If an emergency occurs, it is vital to report it immediately. Some signs of a possible gas pipeline leak include dirt or dust blowing in the air, hissing sounds, gas odours, or bubbles in standing water. If you notice any of these issues in the vicinity of a pipeline, or a marker post, treat it as an urgent situation. Immediately remove all personnel and vehicles from the vicinity, extinguish any naked flames, and take into consideration that gas vapours will travel downwind. Then ensure that the emergency services are contacted and, if you know which one, make the pipeline operator aware that their pipeline has been struck. If you don’t already know the pipeline operator, you should look for the pipeline marker.
“pipeline awareness training is having a possitive effect, with pre-digging searches growing”
It is important that nobody attempts to seal any leaks or extinguish any ignited flames as this could put contractors at greater risk. Instead, those on-site should move away from the incident and leave specially trained professionals to repair the pipelines properly. If you try to do this yourself and hide the problem, it can lead to further problems if repairs are not adequate. For example, dents and gouges in a pipe that may not appear to be a problem can lead to a failure in the future, long after the project is complete. It is vital to report all damage, even if you think it is minor, to the operator, who will ensure the pipeline is thoroughly assessed and assured as safe before any work continues.
The current situation
An estimated four million excavation projects take place every year in the UK alone. Recent LSBUD data revealed that 3.4 million of these projects were searched on its portal prior to work commencing, which equates to at least 85 per cent of all digging occurring with the correct protocols in place. Compared to 2020, this is a 13 per cent increase, demonstrating the positive impact that pipeline awareness training is having with pre-digging searches growing.
However, this does not mean that our work is done. As a result of ongoing investment in large scale infrastructure by the British government to kickstart the UK economy post-pandemic, the number of excavation projects could increase even further, by as much as 20 per cent. As the quality of the work is often reduced to ensure it occurs as quickly as possible, there has never been a more important time to raise awareness for these pipelines.
Our most recent Infringement Report left us with further concern as five high-risk incidents were recorded within the space of a year. These events could have resulted in serious damage to densely populated areas, including schools and hazardous areas, had the pipelines in question been breached. In only one of these five incidents had the correct processes been followed, indicating just how much there is left to do to ensure safety remains paramount, particularly over speed.
The range of activities taking place involving groundwork, and therefore Members’ pipelines, continues to become more diverse. As a result, the requirements for groups like Linewatch to ensure that projects remain safe grows and adapts alongside it. This is particularly true when it comes to the rollout of 5G and the installation of fibre broadband across the UK. These activities will involve extensive digging, which is commonly concentrated in more rural spots. Consequently, many sites are being excavated where no information about the underground pipeline network has ever been requested. Contractors and health and safety professionals therefore need to be vigilant.
The UK’s electrical networks are also preparing to introduce heat pumps and electric vehicle charging points nationwide, which is another important factor to consider. Proper care must be taken throughout the processes of planning and installation to ensure that the UK’s underground pipeline networks are unaffected, despite the rush many contractors are in to get them installed.
Hydrogen is also becoming increasingly prominent across the UK. Project Hynet, which aims to unlock the UK’s low carbon economy to reach net-zero, is a clear example of this. These projects are already in the planning stages, meaning the importance of checking for pipelines is only going to grow, and the need for pipeline education is higher than ever.
“pipeline safety is important, it could be the difference between life and death”
The nominal depth of a pipeline is just three feet, which is as short as a cricket bat, meaning almost all digging has the potential to put the safety of pipelines in jeopardy, particularly when no prior search has occurred. Our quest to educate contractors, health and safety professionals, and landowners on the importance of pipeline safety will continue. It could be the difference between life and death. LSBUD’s data, as well as our annual Infringement Report, is clear evidence of this. The safety of contractors, as well as the environment they are working in the vicinity of, is at risk whenever a spade or digger bucket breaks ground, meaning it is the responsibility of business owners, as well as the wider public, to be as educated as much as possible to prevent incidents.