In Hydroexcavation Work, These Bad Habits Could Kill You

Remember these simple but often overlooked keys to safe hydroexcavation

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During the last decade, Gary Toothe has traveled a million miles — literally — promoting safe operation of high-pressure water and vacuum machinery in excavation and cleaning work. Some longtime operators may think they don’t need safety courses anymore, but what Toothe teaches are important reminders that are helpful for anyone working in hydroexcavation.

His work in the industry began 35 years ago as a rookie tech on the working end of an industrial vacuum hose. He moved into middle management and eventually got into safety training “after I began getting too many accident reports. I decided I would be the guardrail and start teaching people how to work safely.”

Toothe became a certified OSHA expert and for the last 10 years has been training manager at Federal Signal. From his experience in the industry, he has crafted effective safety presentations that he gives all across the country. “Having worked on the vacuum hose years ago is kind of my hook. Yes, I have been there and done that, I tell an audience. Pretty soon I have them listening.”

His early days blasting and cleaning industrial sites predated hydroexcavators, “but we were using air compression and pressurized water and vacuums,” he says. The dangers to bodies of operators were the same in 1984 as today. Then and now, limbs are sucked into hoses with disastrous results and fingers and other body parts are assaulted by water with shotgun force.

What Toothe talks about, however, is not principally about staying out of the way of all that suction and blasting power. Operators are well aware of the deadly forces they wield to accomplish a task. What they don’t know, he says — or, rather, need to be reminded about — is the constant need to avoid bad habits when handling the powerful tools.

Bad habits

His top recommendation for safe and effective hydroexcavation might surprise you: Don’t use too much water. “That’s the biggie. That’s what I try to push the most. OSHA requires that you use the minimal amount of water possible. Anything more is not acceptable. But some operators use way too much water and end up dumping chocolate soup.”

The extra water sometimes happens because an operator affixes the wrong kind of nozzle to the end of his wand and ends up loosening dirt by washing it away rather than cutting it away. “Each nozzle has its own purpose. I recommend a straight nozzle. A rotating nozzle is used way too much. It is supposed to be used to clean out and expose utilities. It liquifies the dirt. The rule against using too much water is consistently ignored.”

More to the point, the extra water permeates the ground, softening it and weakening the walls of an excavation. That leads to Toothe’s second reminder: Don’t stand too close to the edge without a physical restraint. It seems rudimentary, “but operators literally put their toes out over the hole. I see people just hanging out over the hole. If that ground gives way, bad things happen. If it caves in, good luck trying to hold on to the remote and shut down the machinery.”

Toothe distinguishes between a fall “restraint” and fall protection. He recommends using a harness tied off to a truck that will prevent an operator from falling rather than relying on systems that might mitigate the effects of a fall. “If someone falls into a hole or trench he is digging, he’s exposed to the vacuum suction or high-pressure water. You want to avoid falling even 2 or 3 feet because you are exposed. I would rather eliminate the fall altogether by tying off to the truck.”

Work together

“The last thing I would recommend, to give just two or three rules, would be to never work by yourself. If something happens to an operator and no one else is there to shut down the truck …” Toothe says, leaving the consequences unstated. “I just got back from talking to hydroexcavator crews working for the oil industry. Sometimes they’re in the field and no one is around for miles and miles, not till the end of a shift. If something happens to a lone operator in those circumstances …”

Mark Allen agrees. The general manager of Diversified Underground, based in Aurora, Colorado, says he normally sends out two-person teams on his hydroexcavation jobs. “I can’t say there isn’t a time when they work alone, maybe if they are excavating a shallow trench, but if we are locating utilities, I always send a two-man crew.”

Safety aside, some would argue it’s more efficient to send out two operators in two trucks to do two jobs rather than double up on one. Allen doesn’t believe it. “I find that’s not the case. When we are doing a pothole, a single operator has to set out equipment, unpack hoses, get water by himself and dig by himself, holding the dig rod and manhandling a 6- or 8-inch hose — to me that’s a lot slower. Plus, the guy gets tired but still has to backfill by himself and then do the paperwork. You might save a little on labor by sending out one guy, but it isn’t as productive.”

Toothe completely agrees. “That’s what I hear all the time: That it’s more efficient with one person. Well, I did studies. If you have two people working on a job for 12 hours, productivity might be a little less, but it is still about 85% of the optimum. With one guy by the end of the 12 hours, he is working at 30% of optimum. He’s burned out. You save on labor, but you don’t increase efficiency.”

Toothe is agnostic about which is the more dangerous component on a hydro rig — the high-suction vacuum or the high-pressure water. “If you have a dead-man trigger, the water stops in an emergency. It didn’t used to be that way. We used to have ‘suicide nozzles’ that lacked a shut-off. We have eliminated most of them, so high-pressured water is not so much an issue. However, vacuum doesn’t stop unless you hit the remote. If you have two men on a job, everybody should be fine in an emergency.”

Continued training

Wade Glasscock of Smith Industrial Services in Mobile, Alabama, is a longtime advocate of safety training. Today he oversees the trainer, but he used to do the training himself. All 300 people in the company who work with high-pressure equipment are safety trained, from new hires to veterans.

“In some companies, they put new hires out there without the training,” he says. “They’ll hire temporary labor and let them do the tunnels. Our training includes training the attendants. They have to know enough to take care of everything in an emergency. As for the old hires, we have a tailgate meeting before every task is started, a job safety meeting before every job. Every day. You have to stay on top of that.”

A two-person buddy system is an absolute operating procedure at Smith Industrial Services, as is wearing protective clothing. “We use Kevlar on everything. Anything under 4,000 psi we consider power-washing, but operators still need to wear face shields and hard hats. Over 4,000 psi, they wear safety boots and pressure-resistant gloves. Depending on the job, we go up on our expectations of what they should wear,” Glasscock says.

Allen says the rocky dirt of Colorado impacts his operators’ decisions. “Excavating in Colorado soil can be pretty brutal. Our operators are trying to do everything correctly, but a contractor can be standing there saying he wants to get this job done and sometimes my guys will turn up water pressures to get more cutting action. They do sometimes cut corners, but they never do when it comes to safety.” Allen says he would counsel new hydroexcavator operators to “never cut a safety corner and put yourself and a utility in jeopardy.”

Toothe believes all operators should start out by reading safety and operation manuals. Revisiting the manuals is almost as important. “Problems happen when shortcuts become ingrained in working culture. They become internalized.” That is, bad habits and rationalizations take root. “‘There is one chance in a hundred that this or that will happen if you take a shortcut.’ People say that sort of thing. But then they do it a hundred times.”

Toothe wishes every operator would take an OSHA competent person trenching class “so he will understand soil dynamics and recognize the signs of imminent collapse of a trench wall. If I could wave a magic wand, every hydroexcavation job would have a competent person there.” He notes that every operator who has created a hole or trench that someone else will be entering is legally liable in the event of a collapse. The creator of the hole is as liable as the project owner ordering it, the contractor whose people are entering the hole or trench, and the contractor responsible for shoring it properly.

Of course, not every hazard can be foreseen and prevented. In fact, Glasscock says the biggest danger for his hydroexcavation crews has nothing to do with the equipment or the operator — it’s the surrounding traffic. “There are so many people moving around in public places, so many distractions. We can have a 40-foot-long truck with its lights flashing and some girl texting while she’s driving runs into us. Our guys don’t back off trucks into holes. They don’t cut off their feet with high-pressure water. None of that. It’s traffic that’s the big hazard.”

There will always be dangers in hydroexcavation work, but breaking bad habits will go a long way toward keeping you safe on the job.



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