Utility safety: Avoiding disaster requires much more
Underground utilities — electricity, gas, water, telephone, and high-speed internet — are critical assets, but they also are out of sight and often out of mind.
A technician creates a permanent digital record of an underground utility when installing a new marker.
Photos courtesy Berntsen International
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Underground utilities — electricity, gas, water, telephone, and high-speed internet — are critical assets, but they also are out of sight and often out of mind. Nowhere was that illustrated more vividly than the July 10 explosion that rocked downtown Sun Prairie, destroying five buildings, six businesses, and a home, and leading to the death of Sun Prairie volunteer fire department captain Cory Barr, 34, who passed away due to injuries he suffered while responding to the blast.
Eleven emergency responders and citizens also were injured after workers for a private contractor punctured a four-inch gas main, causing a leak that resulted in the explosion. In the aftermath of this tragic event, Mike Klonsinski, president of Berntsen International, which manufactures infrastructure-marking solutions, reminds us of how far we have to go to on the prevention front.
While progress has been made to reduce utility damage, there is a lot of work still to be done. According to an annual report published by the Common Ground Alliance, an estimated 379,000 underground utilities were damaged in the U.S. alone in 2016, a 20% increase over the previous year. CGA’s report pegs the societal costs of utility damages at $1.5 billion.
With nearly 400,000 reported accidental hits last year, that’s more than 1,000 per day causing everything from minor annoyances to more tragic events. “This ongoing safety and damage issue still seems to be hanging on all the time, even after years and years of new technology and new practices and greater awareness,” Klonsinski notes. “We’re still getting a significant level of damage.”
There is so much interest in building and repairing infrastructure — Congress and the Trump administration have been discussing a massive infrastructure bill for the better part of 18 months — Klonsinski believes there will be more opportunities for hits and damage and injuries. So while attention to the issue is higher than it’s ever been, so are the chances of additional tragedies.
Asked why these accidents keep happening when the consequences can be so deadly, Klonsinski cites three factors. Bad excavating practices account for about 50% of the accidental hits, as we’re “sitting on a spaghetti of underground utilities that has been put in the ground since the 1800s, including next generation fiber 5G lines that now are being laid every day across the country.”
The second factor is that many utilities are not accurately mapped — and some maps are simply antiquated — and this is responsible for about 25% of the accidents. “They all mix and match and they go in places you’ve never seen before,” Klonsinski notes.
A third reason, which is responsible for about 15% of utility damage, is simply that people don’t bother calling before they start digging. One month after the explosion in Sun Prairie, National 811 Day was held on Saturday, Aug. 11, and it was designed to promote safe digging practices for underground utilities. Known as Diggers Hotline in Wisconsin, 811 is a national network of call centers that provide information to homeowners and contractors about the location of underground utilities. Every digging project requires a call to 811, but it’s estimated that every 10 minutes, an underground utility is damaged because someone digs without calling ahead.
Just calling a few days ahead gives utility companies time to have locators mark underground utilities with flags or spray paint or both. Needless to say, utility locators need to mark lines for homeowner projects, which range from installing a rural mailbox, to putting up a fence, to building a deck.
Homeowners who hire contractors for projects should make sure — actually, they should insist — the contractor has called 811. Faulty assumptions often are the primary culprit. “A lot of times the issue is that people think, ‘There is no possible way that a utility is here. I’m out in the middle of a farm field.’ Well, believe it or not, there are lines that sometimes run through a farm field, or in your back yard when you’re putting in a deck,” Klonsinski explains. “Or you think you’re not going to be digging that deep. Well, some of these cables are not very deep.”