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Workers digging too close to pipelines

17 May 2023

THERE WERE 316 incidents of workers putting themselves at risk by digging too close to high-pressure oil, gas, and chemical pipes without the owner’s permission in 2022, according to Linewatch, the pipeline safety and awareness group.

The data in its 2022 Infringement Report shows that fencing was the most common danger activity, making up 25 percent of all reports. This was followed by excavation for service at 14 percent, which refers to any work undertaken to install new services including telecoms, gas, and water supply. 

Landowners were the people most likely to cause damage to pipelines in the UK, making up 40 percent of all infringements in 2022. Contractors were also a cause for concern, making up 35 percent, which is a 12 percent increase on 2021.

An infringement can be someone simply working near an oil, gas, or chemical pipeline without the owner’s awareness and permission, through to a worker actually striking a pipe.

Fencing contractor, Elliott, went viral in June 2022 (video) when his post-knocker hit an underground gas pipeline on a farm in Derbyshire. He was lucky and escaped without injury. But that is not always the case.

Elliot comments, “It is a tough incident to talk about. For a few seconds, I simply thought that my time was up, and I was more than incredibly lucky to walk away with not so much as a scratch on me. After I recovered from the initial shock, my only thought was, ‘I don’t want anyone else going through this’. 

“I want to make sure that anyone out there thinking of putting a hole in the ground, no matter if it is knocking in a fencing post, planting a tree, or taking on a major construction project, then they should always search before they start work.”

The Linewatch Report suggests that close to half (45 percent) of infringements occurred even though the person responsible for the incident was already aware of the pipeline’s existence. This is a 15 percent increase on 2022 and highlights a distinct casualness, in some quarters, about the dangers of working near pipelines.

Murray Peat, manager at Linewatch, is concerned by this, “There is an assumption that high-pressure pipelines carrying flammable oil, gas, and chemicals are buried too deep underground to hit. This is far from the truth. In fact, they can be buried only as little as three feet below the surface. Given that hitting one of these pipes can cause serious injuries, and fatalities, as well as irreversible environmental damage with commensurate fines, it is clear why searching before digging is so important.”

In terms of severity, of all incidents recorded, nine were deemed as ‘high’ category. This refers to works that had the potential to cause serious damage. This is a decrease on the previous year.

‘Low’ risk incidents increased by 44 percent in 2022, the most of any category. Low risk refers to works within an easement or wayleave that had no potential for damage. Whilst this sounds like a minimal risk, it is still a worrying sign because the infringements could have been much worse had they been in closer proximity to the pipeline.

When it comes to the timings of these infringements, the first and third quarters recorded peak activity, which correlates with increased seasonal work such as fencing and excavation.

Murray Peat concludes, “As the Government commits to kickstarting the UK economy to regain control over spiralling inflation, there is no sign of digging activities slowing down. Therefore, it is more important than ever that the correct procedures are followed to protect our underground networks and keep our workers safe in the process.”

Visit the Linewatch website to download the full 2022 Infringement Report.