A recent FracTracker Alliance report reveals that in the U.S., an average of 1.7 pipeline incidents are reported each day, requiring 9 people to be evacuated. In addition, a pipeline catches fire every 4 days and results in an explosion every 11 days. These incidents average out to an injury every 5 days and a fatality every 26 days. Unfortunately, these statistics don’t even include the many dangerous outcomes caused by collapses, falling materials, electrocution, flooding and other construction site hazards.
Excavation is among the most hazardous construction operations, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Because construction projects involving excavation have the potential to seriously endanger the lives of work crews, it’s critical to apply safe excavation practices at your work site.
To help you better understand proper safety precautions for excavation activities, this article provides valuable information and insight about mitigating safety risks in compliance with industry standards and regulations.
Call 8-1-1 before you dig
811 is the federally designated call-before-you-dig phone number. Because each state has its own requirements and specifications for digging, it’s critical to contact 811 prior to starting any trenching project. Here’s how the process works:
- At least 2-3 days before the work is scheduled to begin, dial 8-1-1 on your phone or make an online request at call811.com. Details about your state’s specific notification period requirement can be found here.
- From there, your local 811 center will contact any affected utility operators. Wait the required number of days for these operators to mark their buried lines with paint or flags.
- After the required waiting period, confirm (based on your state’s laws) that each affected operator has responded to your request and located their lines accurately.
- If there is an area of your work site containing clear evidence of a utility (e.g., above-ground marker, manhole cover, utility box, etc.) but no utility mark has been made, contact your 811 center so they can follow up.
- Respect the utility marks (paint or flags) and use them as your guide for the duration of the project. If you’re unable to maintain the marks during your project, or the project will continue past your request’s expiration date, contact your 811 center for a re-mark. Dig carefully and in accordance with your state’s tolerance zone for mechanized equipment.
Execute potholing prior to digging
36% of annual underground utility damages (with a known cause) are the result of excavation issues, according to the Common Ground Alliance’s Damage Information Reporting Tool (DIRT). Interestingly, a failure to pothole is highlighted as the largest of these excavation issues. The DIRT report indicates that estimated total damages in the U.S. have reached an all-time high, and it details eight specific recommendations for the industry to adopt in light of these numbers.
Among their critical recommendations is applying potholing as a best practice. This method involves digging a series of very small test holes, usually 6 to 12 inches deep, to identify subsurface pipes, lines and other obstructions. Potholing often leverages vacuum excavation to obtain the necessary verification of underground objects all along the project’s bore path.
It’s true that potholing has existed as a construction practice for quite some time now, but not all work crews take care to execute it prior to commencing digging, which can result in serious risk to workers, projects and underground infrastructure. Without a reliable way to locate and bypass crucial underground utilities, the wellbeing of excavation operators is endangered. Even armed with charts and utility maps (which may be incorrect or out of date), you still run the risk of striking critical underground infrastructure. Potholing gives you the accurate visual verification needed to proceed safely.
Opt for vacuum excavation methods where applicable
Although poorly planned and mismanaged projects continue to result in injuries, deaths, collapses, fires and explosions at work sites across the country, innovation in excavation practices over the last several decades has enabled excavation teams to deploy much safer approaches. One of the most popular and notable of these is vacuum excavation.
The method involves using high-powered suction machines to dig deep, precise underground holes, daylight below-surface utilities and remove associated debris. In combination with a high-pressure water source or air lance, this approach enables workers to dig safely, quickly and with the least amount of damage or disruption to buried infrastructure.
Water and air-based digging methods that rely on vacuum excavation are far more reliable in removing necessary soil and material, as well as far less likely than sharp, cumbersome excavation machinery to pierce underground utilities. The equipment employed for vacuum excavation is immensely more advanced than traditional options, which equates to safer projects requiring less manual labor and overall risk.
Review and apply OSHA Excavation standards
OSHA Excavation standards, which are fully detailed in 29 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 1926, Subpart P, contain requirements for excavation and trenching operations. They apply to all open excavations made in the Earth’s surface, including trenches. Be sure to adhere to these key elements and safe work practices to protect workers from cave-ins and other hazards.
Following are some essential highlights:
- Know where underground utilities are located before digging.
- Keep excavated soil (spoils) and other materials at least 2 feet from trench edges.
- Keep heavy equipment away from trench edges.
- Identify any equipment or activities that could affect trench stability.
- Test for atmospheric hazards such as low oxygen, hazardous fumes, and toxic gases when workers are more than 4 feet deep.
- Inspect trenches at the start of each shift.
- Inspect trenches following a rainstorm or other water intrusion.
- Inspect trenches after any occurrence that could have changed conditions in the trench.
- Do not work under suspended or raised loads and materials.
- Ensure that personnel wear high-visibility or other suitable clothing when exposed to vehicular traffic.
Partner with a dedicated construction team
One of the smartest ways to implement safe excavation practices is to utilize the expertise of a knowledgeable and experienced construction team committed to the health and safety of its workers. They should be implementing OSHA 30 and Operator Qualification training for field workers, as well as show proof of meeting the most current levels of safety regulation and compliance.