By Joe Igel

I still remember sitting at my desk that day when there was the sound of a large apparent explosion. Strangely, this was not uncommon—our office was next door to a trash compaction station which periodically blew up when some item that was not supposed to be in the compactor somehow made it into the compactor. But this time was different. The ground and the building all shook significantly despite the sound itself seeming distant. Within 30 minutes, we heard the news that there had been an explosion nearly 25 miles away, and it was serious.

Two workers running a bulldozer with a ripper attachment, preparing for the installation of a fiber optic line, had ruptured a 25-inch gas transmission line. The gas transmission line crisscrossed the proposed excavation site. The explosion and ensuing fire had literally consumed their bodies, leaving only small piles of ash. Something had gone very wrong. There was much speculation regarding the cause and differing conclusions were reached.

This and similar events formed my views toward safety and toward excavation. Although retired from the day-to-day operation, I am privileged to sit on Ohio’s One Call Law enforcement board. And as I hear complaints where excavators are working around medium and high pressure gas lines, I think back to this incident and others like it.

The rules and safeguards as well as the best practices for working around underground utilities are critical and all excavators should understand the risks they take, the risks that their employees and the public are exposed to and the proper methods to avoid them. A simple understanding of the 811 process is a good start, yet the rules for excavating around gas lines are more complex and more demanding and for good reason.

Since 2003, PHMSA has co-sponsored RP 1162 workshops (RP for Recommended Practices). There is a great deal of benefit from attending these and learning about hazards and protections. Some good practices:

  1. Prepare an Emergency Action Plan for the job. As preparation, review the plan documents for the location of all existing utilities and the specific locations for the work to be performed. A pre-planning meeting with utility owners that have facilities in the dig area would be a prudent move as well.
  2. Notify and work with any listed pipeline operators in your excavation area. Notify them of your expected type of work, schedule and type of construction equipment used (e.g., directional drill versus open cut).
  3. Ask the pipeline operator if they will have a representative there (in certain cases, federal law may mandate a representative being on site when working in proximity to a pipeline) as you approach, dig over and work immediately past their facilities. Invite them to a safety meeting.
  4. Contact the appropriate emergency medical responders for the site(s) so that they are aware of your work. Also, invite them for a safety meeting. As contractors, we get numb to the intricacies of the site, but a first responder coming there for the first time will not be.
  5. Morning safety and planning huddles become even more critical during excavation. The time lost to the huddle will be recuperated by improved production.
  6. Report any damages, caused or even noticed, to the facility owner. Damage, even to the protective coating on the pipeline, can cause catastrophic failure down the road.

Control all of the variables you can and be prepared for the unexpected. There are many best practices and this article only represents a few. Setting yourself up for success is critical to a good outcome.