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.

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.

Mike Klonsinski

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.”

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Marking territory

The Madison-based Berntsen provides traditional and smart-marking products to the utility, survey, and construction industries, and its product line of markers and monuments can be found in more than 100 countries. Klonsinski sees a better, technology-enabled future, noting that change is coming in the way we locate and manage underground infrastructure. Traditional locating practices are being replaced by innovative marking technologies that promise to reduce accidental hits to underground utilities.

A field tech uses mapping software to confirm the exact location of an underground utility.

Newer marking technologies employ radio frequency identification tags that can be placed underground and read above ground, and use mobile mapping software that has virtually everything (images, video, and other metadata) associated with a given geographic point. “I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all for the solution,” Klonsinski says. “The common part is there are different technologies that now all have the opportunity to be linked through cloud databases and others. It’s easier than ever to use and share information, but there are multiple types of technologies that can be used to help with locating, and they just need to be used appropriately.”

As for the other contributing factors, “there is absolutely much more that we can do,” Klonsinski states. “I mean, we don’t even have common maps of utilities. It’s incredible. That’s a very simple thing — being able to have one place where all your utilities might be, and that’s not present. There are different technologies that could be used and new technologies developed all the time that can assist in both the accurate mapping side and with better excavation practices. There are a lot of people deploying those but there are still a lot more that could be doing it.”

Municipalities and regulators of utilities are probably going to have to be more forceful about getting common maps or making sure that requirements for sound excavation and locating practices and accurate mapping are placed in the regulations, Klonsinski adds.

“Frankly, we should not accept the kind of damage being caused by this in our kind of country with our kind of technology, and with these kinds of infrastructure challenges. We can do a lot better and we probably should.

“It would be a shame that if the only time this topic comes up, and the only time it’s gets some sort of priority, is when some sort of tragedy happens,” he adds. “Otherwise, people are willing to accept the risk and accept smaller damage without making the hard choices to make this a safer place.”

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