Richard Broome, Managing Director at LSBUD, talks to Professional Builder about what can be done to keep the building sector safe, drawing on data from its recent study into the excavation work currently taking place.
Those working in the building industry are at risk of unintentionally striking an underground asset, such as cable or pipeline, according the latest research by LSBUD (Linesearch BeforeUdig).
What the data suggests
It has been widely estimated that more than 4 million projects involving digging take place across Great Britain each year. In 2017, only 2.25 million of these saw a thorough search for pipes and cables before the work commenced. This means that 44 per cent did so without detailed examination for existing underground assets. This suggests critical utility infrastructure is at constant risk of being accidentally hit by construction workers.
Currently there is more than 1.5 million km of underground infrastructure already in situ. Furthermore, with less than one per cent of local government making its asset information available to resources like LSBUD, it doesn’t matter whether it is for fencing, housebuilding or piling, it is clear to see why builders are at heightened risk of injury and loss of life.
So, just how big an issue are pipe and cable strikes? Our report gauged the scale of the problem by reviewing the level of electrical cable and gas pipeline strikes that are reported to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) each year. Although awareness around the subject of asset strikes is improving, the sheer scale of construction work taking place means there are still high levels of incidents, and this problem is growing fast. For instance, the number of ‘safety related electrical incidents’ reported in 2012/13 was 162, whereas the incidents reported in 2016/17 was up to 1,244. This is an increase of 668 per cent over five years, doubling in the last year alone.
Reported strikes to gas pipelines are falling, but still managed to clock up 1,264 in the last year. It is important to remember that these numbers are for ‘reported’ incidents, so they do not take into account the significant volume of incidents not brought to the HSE’s attention.
The report not only looked at the scale of the problem, but also highlighted the type of work that is taking place most often, and therefore suggests where possible strikes are statistically most likely to occur. Utility works topped the poll with 80 percent of all enquiries made (1.8 million searches), with maintenance and repair on the UK’s highways coming next with over 305,000 searches. In third was housing work, which received 26,104 enquiries. It is perhaps not that surprising that searches for housing projects ranked so highly, especially after the Chancellor announced plans for 300,000 new homes in the 2017 Autumn Budget. In fact, searches rose by 34 percent between 2016 and 2017.
Impact of strikes
Striking an underground cable or pipe will have major ramifications for both the organisation and workers. However, the potential risk to workers has to always be the number one priority, no matter the financial ramifications. Strikes whilst digging can cause serious injury, or in the most severe cases, fatalities. In the five year period between 2012 and 2017, the HSE reported 318 injuries and fatalities caused by underground electrical cable strikes. Again, this is only the number that was reported to the HSE, so it is likely that many more strikes went unreported.
When focusing on gas pipeline strikes, it is easy to see why they are likely to cause more widespread harm. One example often used to reiterate the importance of asset searches is a near miss in Birmingham from 2005. A subcontractor was undertaking an everyday connection to the gas network in a densely populated area that was close to Spaghetti Junction. The subcontractor mistook a 12” multifuel pipeline for a 6” gas pipeline, so when drilling started the contractors were unaware that they were drilling into a pipe with petrol running through it at very high pressure. Thanks to a regular patrol by the pipeline technicians, a strike was avoided by millimetres, but it would have been Britain’s most extreme fuel pipe incident if work had continued for a matter of minutes longer.
In addition to health and safety concerns, hitting underground assets will result in financial costs and potentially damage brand reputation. It’s fair to say that both of these are likely to affect asset owners more than building companies, however no building firm will want to be associated with creating a major incident that disrupts the public’s electricity, water, broadband or telephone service.
What can be done?
A prime step has to be for asset owners to ensure that their pipe and cable networks can be found on resources like LSBUD’s portal. This offers a free, easy online search service that quickly provides underground utility mapping records across the UK.
However building firms can play their part by remembering to search each and every time, no matter how small the project is. We received a 27 per cent increase in searches between 2016 and 2017, which means that we are now providing information for more than 10,000 searches every working day to help the industry work more safely. Whilst this is a really positive step forward, there is still a long way to go. We need to see a greater improvement from building companies on briefing their workers to check the LSBUD portal before any spade or digger is used.
Download a copy of the Digging Up Britain report