The rise of safe digging

Richard Broome

Richard Broome, MD at LSBUD, an online safe digging resource, discusses the continued improvement in safe digging habits within the construction industry and looks at what more can still be done

OVER the last year, the UK has gone beyond a ‘tipping point’ in terms of safe digging – both for the UK’s underground pipes and cables, and those who dig near them.

Our data shows that performing a search on the LSBUD service before undertaking any digging work has been firmly established as a standard practice among construction workers and contractors.

Indeed, more than three quarters of all UK digging work in 2020 was preceded by a thorough search on our portal.

So, what are the drivers behind this trend?

Health & safety boost

The first one is undoubtedly health and safety. Construction firms are keenly aware that hitting an underground pipe or cable during digging work can have a considerable and long-lasting effect on the person involved, and those around them. As responsible employers, they clearly want to do all they can to avoid such incidents from happening by reducing risk on site.

With this focus on health and safety and risk, it’s not surprising that the majority of construction firms and contractors are using our central portal to search for gas, water, oil and chemical pipelines or electricity and broadband cables, before work commences.

Financial ramifications

Whilst health and safety has to be the number one driver, and rightly so, there are many other ramifications when an asset is struck – such as the impact it has on costs.

Underground assets need to be repaired when they’ve been hit. Beyond this, there are indirect costs, such as traffic disruption and loss of custom to local businesses which have to be factored into the final bill.

According to research by the University of Birmingham, the true cost of an asset strike is 29 times the direct cost; so, for every £1,000 of direct repair cost arising from a utility strike, the actual cost is £29,000.   

For larger contractors, hitting a utility provider’s pipes and cables could result in a costly bill, or a loss of contract depending on the severity of the strike and the negligence on display.

Even if the construction firm responsible for the strike doesn’t have to foot a bill, if they are working on behalf of the utilities, which they often are, the asset repair may be a cost that is borne by their customer.

Avoiding disruption

Added to this, time is money on site; no construction firms want project delays due to pipes or cables having been struck during excavation, especially as future projects are often dependent on the previous one finishing on time. This is certainly adding to the growing list of reasons to search more, ensuring delays are minimised, projects are kept on track and cash flow continues unabated.

Reputational damage

As well as the human and financial impact, an asset strike can also result in considerable reputational damage to the utility provider and construction company involved. For the utility company, any hit is likely to cause significant disruption to their service which impacts customer perception and satisfaction.

For the worker, contractor or construction company, local people will often find out who is responsible for the outage via social media, with complaints and comments quickly reaching a mass audience. In the case of smaller housebuilders and contractors, for whom reputation is everything, this can be a huge issue.

In summary

It is clear to see that an array of factors – health and safety, risk, costs, time delays and reputation management – have taken the construction industry beyond a ‘tipping point’. Asset searching is now second nature for construction firms, with it being a standard step in the vast majority of excavation projects.

This is fantastic news but now is not the time for complacency, especially with construction work set to ramp up post-Covid. With more projects comes a greater likelihood of unsafe digging practices, so there is a critical need for all parties to search before they dig.

If any construction firms are not part of the majority searching before digging, we urge them to change their ways to eliminate avoidable strikes and accidents.