Richard Broome 06 January 2020

Digging Up Britain

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Unintentionally striking a gas pipeline or electrical cable during excavation work can have a massive impact on both the person doing the digging and asset owner. So it is great to see that over the last 12 months there has been a significant increase in the number of searches for underground infrastructures taking place prior to excavation work.

In Great Britain there are approximately four million excavation projects taking place each year, with a record 2.6 million of those being searched for on the LSBUD portal. This means that 62% of all excavation work is preceded by a thorough search.

Part of this increase is undoubtedly because more local authorities and utility owners are now LSBUD members. Of the UK’s 1.5 million kilometres of underground utility infrastructure, more than 800,000 kilometres are currently covered by our collaborative portal, a 23% increase on last year.

The portal receives one search every 12 seconds, however it’s still a worry that nearly four in ten projects are taking place without proper searches. This means that a spade or digger is striking the ground every 21 seconds without a search having been completed.

Biggest threats

The report provides a fascinating insight into the sectors which did the most digging, and the type of projects involved. The biggest threat in terms of excavation volume comes from telecoms companies, with major operators and their contractors completing 881,000 search enquiries in 2018. This made up 34% of total searches taking place, no doubt boosted by the Government’s drive to roll out better broadband.

Water companies generated the second highest volume of searches, with more than 574,000 being made in 2018, accounting for 22% of the total, whilst highways searches also grew by 18%, with 360,000 searches.

Impact of strikes

Accidentally hitting an electrical cable or a gas pipeline can clearly cause life-changing injuries to workers. Over the last six years, there have been 3,972 injuries, including fatalities, caused by asset strikes, and this is only the number reported to the HSE, not including incidents that were ignored or unreported.

Assets which have been struck also need to be repaired. Indirect costs, such as worker ill-health, traffic disruption, impact on the immediate neighbourhood, loss of custom to local businesses and so forth, also impact on the cost of the strike. In fact our report highlights that the true cost of an asset strike is 29 times the direct cost; for every £1,000 of direct repair cost arising from a utility strike the true cost is £29,000.

An asset strike can also result in considerable damage to reputation, because irrespective of who’s responsible, disruption to any service affects customer perception, and thanks to social media, a complaint can quickly reach a mass audience.

Conclusion

Whilst we have seen a marked improvement, there is still some way to go. Local authorities need to ensure their pipe and cable networks are registered with LSBUD so that they can be easily accessed when someone searches. On top of this, they need to instil rigour among their contractors, so that an LSBUD enquiry is always completed before any digging work starts. Searching is free and quick for the user – so there’s no reason for this best practice not to be followed.

You can download a copy of the Digging Up Britain 2019 report here.

Richard Broome is managing director at LSBUD (Linesearch BeforeUdig)

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