Danger Zone: Accident-Free Vacuum Excavation

Danger Zone: Accident-Free Vacuum Excavation
A comprehensive vacuum excavation training program should follow a manufacturer’s recommended operating procedures, industry standards and safety policies and procedures of a company or utility.

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Vacuum excavation is the process of excavating and removing soil using high-powered vacuum suction, which transfers material to a debris tank. Water and air are often used to break up soil and expose underground utilities. Vacuum excavation is a less destructive and more accurate way to excavate soil and locate underground utilities. 

Hydroexcavation equipment, which combines high-pressure water, compressed air and vacuum, can be complex. However, the process and equipment are very safe, but it is critical that the operators are competent and are properly trained to use the equipment. A comprehensive training program should follow a manufacturer’s recommended operating procedures, industry standards and safety policies and procedures of a company or utility. 

Vacuum excavation has many applications including utility locating or potholing; digging assistance near active utilities; installation of road signs, posts or footings; and many others. If an operator will be exposing existing utilities, it’s critical he understands best practices for damage prevention and underground utility construction methods. This lets the operator perform the work, recognize hazards, and manage risks to himself and the public, along with minimizing utility damage during excavation. 

Simple tips for site safety

After you’ve established traffic control and site safety plans and vacuum excavation work begins, use these tips to maintain a safe work site: 

  • Use a one-call center to mark all underground utilities so you can excavate a precise hole and anticipate hazards as you progress through the ground.
  • Use proper personal protective equipment as determined by your company or utility safety policy. This usually includes rubber steel-toe boots, safety glasses, face shield, hard hat, gloves, hearing protection and rain suit. Protect those in the immediate are by explaining site hazards. Set up a safety perimeter with limited access and consider a splashguard when starting the hole.
  • As you excavate, don’t stand near a hole as it gets larger and deeper. Cave-ins are possible at this point, so protect yourself and those nearby.
  • If you are using pressurized water or air be careful not to use more pressure than necessary so you don’t damage existing utilities. A high-pressure water gun at 4,000 to 5,000 psi can easily cut a power cable.
  • Don’t leave large rocks hanging inside the hole because they could fall onto and damage exposed utilities. Remove large rocks as you excavate or lower them into the bottom hole and leave them there at the end of the job. 

Vacuum excavation is used worldwide and has quickly grown into the best method of damage protection and standard construction practice in the United States. The process will continue to grow through proper use and safe application. Work smart. Work safe.   

About the Author

Matt Timberlake is vice president of Ted Berry Company Inc., a municipal and industrial services and trenchless technologies company located in Livermore, Maine.

Contact him at matt@tedberrycompany.com or www.tedberrycompany.com.


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