Health and Safety Resource

October-November 2017

Call Before You Dig: The hazards of underground utilities​


For the construction and utility industries, using the Oregon Utility Notification Center’s 811 service – perhaps better known for its tagline “Call before you dig” – is critical.

After all, the potential ripple effects of failing to take that crucial step before breaking ground in an area that may contain buried water, electricity, or natural gas lines include lives injured or lost, buildings damaged or destroyed, and financial costs that only pile up.

So far this year, Oregon OSHA, whose jurisdiction is worker safety, has issued seven citations to companies for failing to secure locations of underground lines before opening excavations. Those citations have totaled more than $13,000 in initial penalties. Four other investigations of such incidents remain active.

Meanwhile, Oregon experienced more than 2,000 line strikes in 2016 alone, according to the Oregon Public Utility Commission, whose program includes enforcement of utility safety standards. Nationwide, a line strike occurs every six minutes.

All of which is to say that, while using the 811 service is common practice for certain industries, its importance is sometimes lost in the rush to move dirt. What’s more, calling before you dig isn’t the only requirement that must be followed in accounting for the potential hazards of underground utilities.

Employers need to familiarize themselves with Oregon OSHA’s rules – spelled out in Division 3, Subdivision P, Excavations – and the state Utility Notification Center’s rules and requirements.

Oregon OSHA’s specific requirements are:

  • The location of utilities must be determined before opening an excavation
  • The exact location of the installations must be determined by safe and acceptable means
  • While excavations are open, underground installations must be protected, supported, or removed as necessary to safeguard employees

Altogether, it’s a situation that calls for a fresh reminder of best practices, as well as a renewed commitment to safety.

landscaper hit a gas line while digging a trenchno markings despite presence of natural gas and electric service meters

More than 2,000 utility line strikes occurred in Oregon in 2016. In the image to the left, a landscaper hit a gas line while digging a trench. In the image to the right, a work crew failed to identify all underground hazards – despite the presence of natural gas and electric service meters – before beginning a fence-building project​

A step in the right direction

The Oregon Utility Notification Center (OUNC) administers the statewide One Call system. When you call the nationwide 811 number, your call is routed to the Oregon One Call Center.

So, here’s what to do. Call 811 at least two business days and no more than 10 days before planning to dig. Tell the operator where you are planning to dig and what type of work you will be doing. The OUNC will notify the affected local utility companies about your intent to dig.

Within two business days, the utility will send a locator to mark the approximate location of the underground lines, pipes, and cables with color-coded paint so you will know where they are.

The color codes indicate what is buried below:

  •  Red  – Electrical
  •  Orange  – Communications, telephone, and cable TV
  •  Blue  – Potable water
  •  Green  – Sewer and drainage
  •  Yellow  – Gas and petroleum pipeline
  •  Purple  – Reclaimed water
  •  White  – Indicates the site of your intended excavation

Calling the One Call Center gives you crucial information about buried utility lines and protects you from liability if a utility line is damaged. The program provides a critical communication link between those planning to dig – whether a large construction contractor or a property owner installing a fence – with service providers that may have underground facilities in a proposed excavation area.

Remember: Do not rely on old drawings or maps to locate buried utility lines. They may not be reliable.

Likewise, do not guess the location of a natural gas pipeline. Permanent pipeline markers, which are located along roads, railways, and other public rights of way, show the approximate location of the buried pipelines. However, the depth and location of the pipelines vary within the right of way, and the markers are not located precisely over a line. Nor do the markers indicate the depth of the line.

Best practices and rules

Your responsibility for safety doesn’t end there. You need to implement best practices and follow the rules as you approach your excavation project.

For example, use only hand tools – or other noninvasive methods –within 24 inches of each marked natural gas line to carefully expose the exact location before using power equipment. If you damage a pipe, immediately call the pipeline owner. Gouges, scrapes, or dents to a pipeline can lead to future problems. If there is an unintended release of natural gas, petroleum products, or other hazardous materials, immediately call 911.

You are not on your own as you approach an excavation project that may involve underground utilities. Help is available. To learn about training opportunities provided by OUNC on the 811 service or details on the process of submitting a locate request, visit Oregon OSHA offers information about excavation safety, and technical and no-cost consultation services​.

Ultimately, calling before you dig – and following related rules and best practices – is about doing the right thing. And doing the right thing means keeping the public safe, sending workers home safely to their families at the end of the work day, and protecting property – all the while getting your project done.

Aaron Corvin is a public information officer for Oregon OSHA. Kandi Young is a public information officer for the Oregon Public Utility Commission.

Can you dig it?

Call 811 and ask for locates.