Let’s make digging even safer

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Running a free search for underground pipes and cables to avoid dangerous utility strikes, is proving more popular than ever.

However, there is still room for improvement, with some asset providers still being slow to register their data with the system.

It’s estimated that four million digging projects take place every year across the UK, with 3.4 million of these being preceded by a thorough asset search on LSBUD’s portal. LSBUD is free service that allows anyone undertaking work like excavations to check for the presence of utility assets registered on the portal (like underground and overhead pipes and cables carrying services like electricity, gas, high pressure fuel and water), to avoid striking them and putting workers and others in danger.

This is a 10 per cent increase on the previous year and means that 84 per cent of excavations in the UK are taking place safely and with an understanding of what lies beneath the ground.

The more people that search before they dig, the safer we are. Photograph: iStock

Further to this, awareness of the free LSBUD search database among high-risk groups, such as the general public and farmers, is increasing. According to LSBUD’s Digging up Britain 2022 report, six per cent of all searches (157,428) made in 2021 came from private individuals, a 25 per cent increase on the previous year.

This growth highlights the surge in consumer awareness that free checks for utility assets can be made before starting work, with searches for domestic works projects increasing by 83 per cent. Agricultural works also saw a substantial increase over the year, with the total number of searches increasing from 3,446 to 6,067 – a massive 76 per cent rise.

Away from private individuals, analysis of searches made on LSBUD’s collaborative portal show the majority of digging work was undertaken on behalf of the telecoms sector, followed by the water industry. This has been the case since the Digging up Britain report first launched, with the two sectors accounting for 77 per cent of all digging work in 2021.

With home improvements on the rise, the government’s renewed focuses on the roll-out of broadband and 5G, and more people driving electric vehicles (EVs) than ever before, it is clear to see why the telecoms sector has such a significant impact on the UK’s digging habits.

When it comes to accidents at home, or out in the field, of all the safety-related digging incidents reported to HSE in 2021, just 41 were recorded as injuries, with none being fatal. This represents a 48 per cent decrease on 2020, and is a positive sign that the educational safe digging message is gaining momentum.

Good practice

To highlight the point of the safe digging industry operating at its best, let’s consider this real-life example.

Last Mile, which supplies electricity and gas to 400,000 customers, has network reliability and availability as its key priority.

Richard Broome: "The volume of digging work across the UK is set to boom in 2022." Richard Broome: "The volume of digging work across the UK is set to boom in 2022."

In 2021, it joined the LSBUD system in a bid to better protect its networks and the people working nearby. Historically, Last Mile would respond to requests for network drawings from parties like contractors and local authorities through a manually intensive process that involved a small team of administrators. With the business, and network, growing, it started to receive an ever-increasing number of requests, requiring more and more resources.

Before joining the LSBUD’s collaborative portal, Last Mile was receiving 6,000 enquiries a month, which in turn typically led to 100 positive ‘interactions’ – a situation where the enquirer is working close to its network. Since joining LSBUD, Last Mile now receives around 290,000 enquiries a month and this leads to 5,000 ‘affected’ interactions – a 4,900 per cent increase.

By making it easier for people to be aware of the location of its apparatus, Last Mile has taken the right steps to better protect its assets and all those working nearby – both from the risk of injury due to accidental utility strikes, and service disruption and repair costs arising from asset strikes. By successfully partnering with companies such as Last Mile, the LSBUD network is able to grow, and the service’s ability to map and highlight critical areas of concern further improves – benefiting every party involved.

Water sector at risk

While there is much to cheer about in the 2021 data, there is still the challenge of encouraging water companies to share details of the locations of their assets. The sector once again remained the worst-performing when it comes to disclosing pipeline information, with just 15 per cent of water companies currently subscribing to the LSBUD portal. In contrast, the gas and electricity sectors currently have 90 and 92 per cent representation, respectively.

This means that water companies are missing out on the benefits of increasing network resilience – and reducing leakage and unplanned interruptions. Those water companies that do subscribe to LSBUD’s collaborative portal are seeing the benefits first-hand. For example, Portsmouth Water reduced strikes on its network by 26 per cent in just 12 months.

Interestingly, the water industry is acutely aware of the need to perform asset searches. In the report, it ranks as the second most active sector, behind telecoms, when it comes to searching the LSBUD portal before undertaking its own digging. Indeed, water companies and their contractors accounted for 914,886 requests in 2021. This was an 11 per cent increase on the previous year and accounted for 27 per cent of all searches performed in 2021.

In summary

Not only is performing an asset search common practice across all industries, but it is now much more common among the general public and highly vulnerable groups, which is great to see.

This is significant because the volume of digging work across the UK is set to boom in 2022 and beyond with the government striving to reach its 5G, broadband and EV targets.

The more people that search before they dig now, the safer we stay as a nation, even when more works are taking place. Our message is simple – always search before you dig.

To download a copy of Digging up Britain 2022, visit: lsbud.co.uk/digging-up-britain-report

Richard Broome is Managing director of LSBUD


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