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Hidden Hazards 811, Call before you dig

By Bev Barr BCC Editor

What better way to spend Hill Country Excavation Safety Day than watching and hearing a front-end loader strike an underground natural gas pipeline? (Accidentally on purpose, of course.)
That’s just what several hundred people did last Thursday at the Hill Country Youth Event Center at a workshop sponsored by Damage Councils of Texas, Texas811 and other businesses and utilities. The informative outreach event was designed to inform laypersons about the dangers buried in the underground world of utilities, and to reinforce safety procedures for those who work in the industry.
At the mock pipe line strike, a front-end loader struck and ruptured the underground pipe line and it sounded like an enormous gas stove, the old scary kind that hisses for a little too long before igniting with a sudden, whipping “whoosh!” The gas, released from the immense pressure necessary to contain it in a pipeline, flows freely from the broken line, expanding and cooling, creating a cloud of gas impossible to see through, at first.
“Striking any kind of underground line is not something anyone wants to take lightly,” says Doug Meeks, Damage Prevention Manager with Texas811. “Should it happen to be gas, for instance, you literally have seconds to make decisions that could save your life.”
Many pipelines are made from polyethylene, although pipelines have been made out of all sorts of materials. At the moment a polyethylene gas line breaks there is 30 to 40,000 volts of static electricity that wants to go to ground. “That is a very dangerous place to be, Meek said. “The first order of business is to protection of the public.”
The demonstrations included two scenarios. The first scenario demonstrated the safest way to proceed with excavation work. This procedure reduces the risk of dangerous complications and is most cost effective. The second scenario seemed to demonstrate an answer to the question: What could possibly go wrong? (That is if I don’t follow procedure, and just ‘Get R Done’.) The second scenario results in risk of life, wastes valuable resources and winds up costing the taxpayer a bloody fortune.
The Right Way —
Call before you Dig
The safest way to approach an excavation site means calling 811 and communicating in such a way that is consistent and understandable by all workers who may be involved in work at the site. White spray paint on the ground communicates effectively where it is safe to dig, and where it is not. Communication is simplified by the consistent use of color markers or flags. These are useful to know for workers and for the average homeowner, landowner or citizen.
The Right Way also included walking the perimeter of the site, taking photos to document the site (which will be required in the event of an accident report). Then there is a final call to 811 and a confirmation code before the workers leave for a 24 or 48 hour waiting period depending upon the circumstances.
The presence of a marker means that the specific utility is in the area, it does not necessarily mark the location of the underground utility.
What could possibly
go wrong?
The next demonstration – the mock accident – started out funny. But after 20 minutes or so, the value of preventing accidents was beginning to really sink in.
A couple of workers walk up to the mock excavation site and look for an existing trench line. They see a marker and assume that the flag marks the location of underground utilities. (Remember, markers indicate underground utilities are in the area, not the exact location.)
Next, the workers give the terrain the “eyeball test” and mark what looks like a good place to start digging by dragging the heel of his boot across the ground. (That was the funny part.)
He hops on the excavator and almost immediately strikes the mock underground natural gas pipe, which ruptures. The gas, released from the immense pressure necessary to contain it in a pipeline, flows freely from the broken line, expanding and cooling, creating a cloud of gas impossible to see through, at first.
Instead of calling 811, one worker dials 911, while the other is obviously injured and remains lying on the ground. The approaching sound of sirens meant the police were on the way. They were the first to arrive, followed by the fire department and EMS. These professionals put on full protective gear including breathing apparatus, and enter what once was a straightforward excavation site, but now was a life-threatening incident. The helicopter arrived, as did various investigators, later, once the site of the incident was declared safe. Other workers showed up to determine the extent of damage and the best way to repair it — all of which must now be done before the initial excavation work can begin.
What started out as a straightforward job involving two workers, wound up requiring about 25 people, some of them highly skilled.
“It’s more important than ever that citizens know and understand the free 811 safety system, and see how their first responders react should an accident occur,” said Meeks.
One very important take-away tip from the workshop: If you (or your child or ambitious puppy) move the marker, don’t put it back. Even if you are sure that you can put it back where it was originally, please don’t take the chance. Call the 811 and let them take care of it. People’s safety and cost effectiveness depends upon it.
Texas 811 was formed in 1984 as Texas Excavation Safety System, Inc. and was the first statewide, one call notification center in Texas. During the past 30 years, it has grown into the largest and arguably most experienced, one call notification center in the world, responding to and locating utilities for more than 2.75 million requests annually.

What the
colors on
markers mean:

WHITE – Proposed Excavation
PINK– Temporary Survey Markings
RED – Electric Power Lines, Cables, Conduit and Lighting Cables
YELLOW – Gas, Oil, Steam, Petroleum or Gaseous Materials
ORANGE – Communi-cation, Alarm or Signal Lines, Cables or Conduit
BLUE – Potable Water
PURPLE – Reclaimed Water, Irrigation and Slurry Lines
GREEN – Sewers and Drain Lines