Make the Call to Keep Your Crew Safe

Excavating and working around underground utilities requires careful preparation and constant communication.

Make the Call to Keep Your Crew Safe

There are more than 300,000 incidents each year related to utilities being struck during repairs and installation in the water and wastewater industry, costing millions of dollars.

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Utility lines for electricity, phone, cable TV and many others are increasingly being buried underground, making repairs to water pipelines more and more complicated. While putting lines in the ground offers aesthetic improvements and helps protect utilities from storms, it means there are countless obstacles for utilities and contractors doing underground work.

Statistics show that on average there are more than 300,000 incidents each year related to utilities being struck during repairs and installation of new services in the water and wastewater industry. These incidents cost millions of dollars in lost time, damages, loss of service and loss of fire suppression services. Not long ago, workers building a new section of Interstate 4 in Orlando, Florida, struck a natural gas line. The ensuing excavation and repair closed this busy east-west corridor for over 12 hours, causing serious delays and closures of local businesses. As you can imagine, there was a lot of anger from the travelling public and businesses seeking damages.

There are four primary precautions for ensuring that you stay safe and minimize the chances of causing damage during excavation:

  •  Call 811
  • Take notes and photos
  • Use the right tools
  • Communicate with other utilities.

Call 811

811 is a nationwide service that will give you all the information you need to make a request to locate pipes and other underground infrastructure. When you call 811, you can find out if it’s safe to dig, with requests usually completed within two to three days and a locate lasting 30 days. This process can also be done online: Simply Google “811” with your state and the appropriate website will most likely be at the top of the search.

Make sure that you wait for the locate to be completed before you dig — it’s the law. Almost all utilities are a member of 811 and will be willing to come to your dig to help ensure that their utilities don’t get hit. In case of an emergency repair, it is also critical to call 811 before you start. The staff can quickly provide info and provide service around the clock. If you uncover an issue or hit a utility line during a dig, 811 staff has contact information to reach the right people at any time to help find someone who can make the repair. You might have to pay the repair costs depending on many factors, but regardless, the repair must be made and can’t be ignored.

Take notes

Make sure that you take plenty of pictures before, during and after the excavation is done. Note the locate marks and flags prior to digging, but keep in mind that occasionally the actual location of the utility and the marks are very different. Take pictures of where lines are actually located. Is the natural gas line underneath the waterline or next to it? Gas lines have a minimum bury depth of 24 inches, while water has a 36-inch minimum bury depth. However, it’s not uncommon to find some strange things in the trench such as lines that cross over top of yours at intersections or Ts. Take lots of notes and use them to update your utility maps, and educate other workers and management. Take the time to help your employer and your utility become a better and safer place to work.

Get equipped

The right tools are critical for safe excavation. Vacuum trucks and trailers are ideal for both identifying other utilities and safely excavating the work area. There will be exceptions, mostly for new construction when you could use backhoes and mini-excavators, but in every other case, the ground has been previously disturbed so a vac unit will be the best, safest and most economical way to go. Using a probe while looking for other utilities during your dig is necessary but requires caution. Use your experience and common sense when probing for utilities to avoid lines being struck.


With so many lines crisscrossing underground, the issue of other utilities attempting to make their repairs at the same time happens more frequently and has resulted in many changes, including the need to schedule repairs, new businesses being formed to locate utilities, and 811 laws. Look to have a representative of a specific utility on site to assist your dig. If you’re the utility that is required to be on site, this will be time well-spent and it will pay to be patient. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and a little precaution before a crisis is better than a huge repair afterward.

Get to know the other utility companies in your area and consider having monthly or quarterly meetings to discuss issues and ongoing or future projects. Use photos and notes from your previous repairs to point out issues and problems to other utilities. If you build friendships with these other folks, you’re more likely to be able to reach them after normal business hours (since this is when most of our emergencies take place).

Working near utilities is complicated business and the lack of space underground will become further complicated as utilities get replaced. If you take the steps above, you will be in a much better position to excavate more effectively, avoid striking other utilities, and save time and money.

Doug Riseden is the technical support manager for Krausz USA.


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