Beware What Lies Beneath
As with many things, when it comes to utility lines, there’s more than meets the eye. Many pipelines and conduits run beneath buildings and streets, and even your own back yard. Overall, roughly 18% of distribution line mileage is underground, according to the Edison Electric Institute. Burying utility lines certainly makes for a more pleasing view, but it also can make for hidden dangers when homeowners or construction workers accidentally cut into a buried line.
That’s why April has been designated National Safe Digging Month. I know, I know – It seems like every day is National Something-or-other Day. But creating awareness of the dangers of digging is a way to prevent injuries and deaths, and statistics show that it has been effective. Organized by the Common Ground Alliance (CGA), the event has been observed since 2008, when there were 135,621 digging accidents reported by the group’s members; by 2010 that number had decreased to 112,917.
By now, we all know to dial 911 in case of an emergency. There’s another number you should know about, and that’s 811. Safe digging starts with a call to 811, a free service for homeowners, excavators and contractors who plan to dig, grade, drill or excavate. When you dial 811, you will be patched in to one of 62 centers in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Your local utility will send someone out — free — to mark the rough location of their lines with spray paint or flags so you or your contractor won’t hit them.
If you’re a homeowner, you’ve probably hunkered down during this severe winter, dreaming of all the projects you want to undertake in the spring . . . fencing the back yard, planting trees and shrubs, putting in a new deck and maybe even a pool. The depth of buried utility lines varies, and you should never assume it’s safe to dig. Even putting up a new mailbox can be hazardous. Damaging underground electric or gas lines can cause fires, and cutting into an electric line can cause electrocution as well. Think the odds are remote? CGA reports that Americans strike underground utilities about once every few minutes, usually because they fail to call before they dig.
Not all mistakes are made by uninformed homeowners. Tom Dickey was an experienced contractor from Auburn, Illinois. At the end of work day in which he was doing a horizontal drilling project, he took a chance that almost cost him his life. Although he knew the correct procedures, he cut corners to save time and cut into an electrical conduit. The high-voltage shock caused serious burns, including making a hole in Tom’s hand that was so deep that the bones were showing and the tendons were severed as a result of electrical burns. Tom spent months in the hospital, enduring numerous surgeries. He works today with Safe Electricity’s “Teach Learn Care TLC” campaign to share his story and his message about putting safety first.
Just a few weeks ago, a townhome community in Ewing, New Jersey, suffered a major gas explosion when an electrical contractor hit a gas line. One resident was killed, seven workers were injured, ten townhomes were completely destroyed and at least 55 were significantly damaged in the explosion.
Sometimes a digging accident can have unexpected and widespread consequences. A Northern Wyoming homeowner was using an auger to dig holes for fence posts when he struck a buried fiber optic line. He was not injured, but several surrounding communities lost their telephone and internet service for eight hours, inconveniencing hundreds of individuals as well as businesses, which were unable to accept credit card transactions. In addition, the 911 emergency service was temporarily shut down, which could have had tragic consequences.
The bottom line is, call 811 so you’ll know what’s below. Protect yourself, your family and your neighbors from injury and inconvenience. Use reputable contractors who follow best practices for excavation.
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At McNeely Stephenson, we work to protect the rights of Indiana workers and homeowners who have been injured in catastrophic accidents. If you or a loved one has suffered a serious burn, electrocution or property damage due to a digging accident, call us at 1-317-825-5200.