Protect Your Operators, and the Public

Safe hydroexcavation takes two sets of eyes and an understanding of all potential risks.

Protect Your Operators, and the Public

One of the biggest concerns in hydroexcavation is boom clearance. While operators are focused on the ground before them, booms are stretching far overhead and can come in contact with power lines or other obstacles if not closely monitored.

Hydroexcavation is often promoted as a safer method of excavation — and in almost all ways, it is. But that doesn’t mean it is without its own dangers, of which operators must be constantly aware.

As with any job site, working with hydrovac trucks has the potential for catastrophe if the proper precautions are ignored. The best way to keep operators and the public safe is to simply have a second pair of eyes on the job.

“That’s the biggest thing — just having that extra guy around to watch your back,” says Anthony Chavez, safety compliance officer for Davids Hydro Vac in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. “With hydroexcavation, 90 percent of the time while you’re digging, you’re staring at the ground. You try to keep your head on a swivel as much as you can, but there’s a lot of different dangers that go on around you.”

One of the biggest concerns is boom clearance. While operators are focused on the ground before them, booms are stretching far overhead and can come in contact with power lines or other obstacles if not closely monitored. And while it is less likely than with traditional digging equipment, damaging underground utilities is still possible, which brings gas lines and other utilities into play, in addition to electricity.

Bystanders present another potential safety issue. Unlike a typical construction or excavation site with backhoes and bulldozers, a job site with just a hydroexcavator doesn’t always raise the same red flag in the minds of bystanders.

“If you’re in a residential area, there could be commuters,” Chavez says. “A lot of times you’ll get the wanderers that come up and they just want to know what you guys are doing. If you don’t have that extra guy, they may go into an area that you’ve already excavated — they may not pay attention to the caution tape or the cones that you have set up.”

Proper training and apprenticeship are also important. It doesn’t matter how many guys are on scene if they don’t know what they’re doing.

“That second guy in the truck is going to know all the safety features on the truck. If anything happens to that operator, you always have that backup person who’s going to know how to operate that truck. So he can shut it down if need be, he can pull the operator out of it, so you always have that safety backup.”

Of course, OSHA training is required, but for Chavez, that’s the bare minimum. He also has their spotters go through union training on flagging and hand signal procedure, and the operators spend at least six months to a year riding along with senior operators before going out on their own.

“We could do a crash course and have the guys out there operating a truck, just because they have a CDL, within a month. That’s just not the way we do it,” Chavez says. “The less high-profile customer may not require certain training. We just go ahead and do the training regardless, across the board, with all of our guys.”

Lastly, Davids Hydro Vac has a job site checklist, something that is typical on many construction and job sites across the industry, but may be overlooked when it comes to hydroexcavating.

“When you handle it this way, there’s no downtime. You don’t have to stop the whole construction site or excavation. They can keep working and keep doing what they need to do,” Chavez says. “The biggest thing is making sure that our guys and the guys they’re working for are making it home safely.”

If you don’t think there is any risk for operators or contractors, consider the Ontario hydrovac company that was fined $285,000 in February after one of its workers was killed when he hit an overhead electrical line with his hydrovac truck’s boom. Reports say that there was no secondary monitoring of the boom’s movement, and operators were so focused that they didn’t realize the boom was too close to the lines.

“The fines, that’s money. Somebody getting injured, that’s somebody’s life, their livelihood, their career,” Chavez says. “It’s not the money standpoint; it’s that somebody’s life could get taken away for a simple bonehead mistake if somebody’s not paying attention or taking it for granted that they have the clearance.”

With very little downside and plenty of upside, all hydroexcavation work should by accompanied by a second pair of eyes.


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