pipeline damage

Damage to a gas pipeline caused this blaze. (Photo provided from the Damage Prevention Professional Library)

There are certain things that, no matter how often they happen, we should never accept without question.


Accidental death and injury fit into this category. And though none of us would ever claim to justify these things, our actions may sometimes suggest otherwise. Take, for example, the current practice of underground asset detection and digging near a buried utility.


Each year from 2002 thru 2010, approximately 15 to 20 people die from injuries just related to pipeline excavation activities. The number of pipeline incidents ranges from 255 to 338 at an average occurrence of one accidental “hit” each minute on buried utility lines.


Just in the United States, over 525,000 incidents happen annually. Statistically speaking, we have a stable system of utility accidents and fatalities. And, in addition to human cost, property damage is baffling. In 2010 alone, damages totaled $985,000,000. In 2005, the property damage from Pipeline Incidents alone topped a staggering $1.4 Billion Dollars.


A recent study from the Common Ground Alliance seeks to determine what, precisely, are the true leading causes of these consequences. What is so wrong with our current practice of underground asset detection that despite best efforts, such damages have become routine?


Their answer: insufficient excavation practices (careless digging near underground facilities) and failure on the part of those digging to notify one-call centers prior to excavation. In short, the workers are to blame. 


But is that the whole truth?


Thousands of these excavations occur each day. There are 2.3 million miles of natural gas and oil pipelines alone under our feet, and it’s the job of utility workers to monitor and repair them.


You’d imagine these workers would have to have some pretty techy tools in order to cover such a wide range of assets over so broad an area.


Not so; in monitoring and detecting assets, most utility workers rely on outdated paper records, poor maps that often do not reflect the “as built” location and depth of the asset, and somewhat unreliable location methods that lag behind more current 21st Century methods.


To alert area dwellers of nearby excavation, they issue a call from an established on site center.


This call, though an easy way to send word of activity, only goes out to publically registered utility owners. As many underground assets are privately owned, several individuals remain unaware of excavation activity.


Why do utility workers use these inadequate or improper tools and technology? Not because they don’t care about the consequences and are, as the CGA study suggests, simply engaged in “careless digging,” but because workers can only use the tools that are available to them. In order to do their job, they have to rely on the equipment at hand.


The real source of blame, then, is not the workers, but the system, the technology and processes continuing to give rise to fatalities and damages. Only owners and management can change the system, technology, and processes used for buried asset location and identification.


Unless things change, they will stay the same.


To ward off these consequences and protect both people and property, we must make changes to the system. And, thanks to recent innovations in accurate buried utility location and verification, we can.


Berntsen’s latest offering, the InfraMarker, is revolutionizing the excavation process. This location and identification system is easy to use and enables utility workers to pinpoint the exact location of underground assets marked with RFID (radio frequency identification) tags and extract information from these tags with its RFID reader technology.


In addition to saving utility companies serious time and money, the InfraMarker makes it so that all underground assets, registered or not, can be easily marked and identified. Thus, when excavation is about to occur, workers can know exactly where all assets are and be on guard for them.


With the widespread use of RFID technology and the InfraMarker software and hardware tools, the chance of accidentally hitting a buried utility asset and causing damage to people and property decreases significantly.


For more information on the InfraMarker, visit its product page or request a catalog.