Construction industry leaders have called for a major change in standards when digging and working close to underground services.
Speaking at the launch of ‘Safe Digging is Not Enough’, a new safety toolkit produced by the Underground Utilities Working Group, Kier chief executive Paul Sheffield said: “The injuries caused by the inadvertent striking of underground services and utilities can be devastating, even fatal.
“Importantly, these strikes can be avoided, which is why we are calling on the industry to join us in pursuing a step change in safe digging, supported by the launch of this new toolkit.”
The toolkit outlines best practice in designing and planning projects and digs around live underground utility services such as gas and electricity.
Contractors and clients in the working group, which includes Bam Nuttall, Barhale, Crossrail, Kier, Morrison Utility Services, Skanska, UK Contractors Group and UK Power Networks, urged closer collaboration with designers and asset owners to ensure workers on site are not put at risk.
Speaking to Construction News, Mr Sheffield said: “We have to stop and think before we even design service connections and service works under a road. We have to minimise the risk to operatives at the outset of a project.
“We’ve also got to improve communication with the asset owner and work with them to see if these live assets can be switched off or de-energised before we work in dangerous situations.”
However, Mr Sheffield acknowledged that the absence of external design agencies on the working group was a “blank” and that the group would have to address this going forward.
He said: “It’s crucial that designers are involved because a lot of cable routing is determined by designers.
“When you look at the commercial side of contracting, the contractor is given a drawing with a cable going from one building to another in a straight line and that’s what he’s paid for.
“If the contractor decides it’s safer to put twice the length in and go down the street first, he won’t get paid for it. The designer and the building owner also have to take ownership.”
Crossrail health and safety director Steve Hails said the working group had to do a lot of “mythbusting” before drawing up the toolkit.
He said: “There was a myth that if you dig in London, you haven’t got a chance of getting any utility company to isolate the supply.
“That’s not true if you plan in advance, so the toolkit really looks at pre-planning.”
More accurate documentation of new services being installed will also be crucial to ensure the safety of future operatives, with Mr Sheffield stating that logging services accurately is “absolutely vital”.
Mr Hails added: “The network of services that we’re faced with under London’s streets is vast and very difficult. We have to start thinking about this when we put new services in – how we document this and make it more available to future projects.”
The toolkit follows the publication earlier this year of the HSE guidance Avoiding Underground Services HSG47.
The working group was set up in the aftermath of an electrical explosion on a Crossrail site in High Holborn in December 2012. The incident seriously injured an employee of Barhale Construction, subcontracted to work on the site by the BFK consortium.
Barhale chairman Dennis Curran confirmed that the employee had made an “excellent physical recovery”.
He said: “The follow-on from this now is the most important thing. We have to have the mindset and determination to get [from this toolkit] concept to delivering it. We have to make sure this doesn’t fizzle out.”