Call before you dig

Digging a posthole over a water main can leave you all wet.
Trenching for lawn irrigation on top of a communications cable can yield an unpleasant phone call.
Excavating for a water garden where there’s a gas line can turn into one last blast.
But there’s a simple preventive for any of these hazards: Call 811.
“We’re trying to get that message across to save lives and property and services,” Bill Rutledge of Pontotoc, a damage prevention coordinator for Mississippi 811, the state’s utility location clearinghouse, said at an industry conference last week.
Roger Cox, a consultant for the 811 system in several states, added, “We want to carry this across the state … to share this message of damage prevention to all stakeholders. This message is too important, with too much at stake, for us to feel lethargic just because we’ve said it once or twice.”

Everyone is covered
In 1985 Mississippi lawmakers began requiring contractors to call a central clearinghouse before digging so member utilities could mark their underground infrastructure and help workers avoid damage and danger.
Now all utilities are required to participate.
“Anyone who is going to dig is required by law to call us two days before,” Rutledge said. “It doesn’t take much effort, and it’s the right thing to do.”
Even homeowners are covered under the state law, although agricultural tillage less than 24 inches deep is exempt.
“The law says if you’re digging at a depth of less than 12 inches with hand equipment, you’re not required to call,” said Sam Johnson, president of Mississippi 811. “If you’re digging anywhere with mechanical equipment, you’re required to call.”
For someone merely planting an apple tree or setting a new mailbox, calling for utility markings may seem like overkill. Not so, Johnson said: Hand tools are second only to backhoes and trenchers in the number of damages caused to utilities nationwide.
To make the point even sharper, he cited that in Colorado – one of the few states that require all utility-damage incidents to be reported – the most common incident cause was fence construction. In one farm incident, a posthole digger ruptured a gas line, he said, and the resulting explosion killed two people and destroyed five houses.

Gaining ground
With a concerted effort, underground utility damages have dropped dramatically in recent years. Credit goes to having a single number nationwide, more public awareness, improved operator training and advanced technology such as vacuum excavators and programmable global positioning systems that prevent operators from digging near known utilities.
Bob Kipp is president of Common Ground Alliance, a utility/construction coalition that develops “best practice” standards for damage prevention. He cited an estimated 450,000 such incidents in 2004 and only 200,000 in 2008. Despite a downturn in construction, he said, the decrease continued a safety trend that began during the economic boom.
Fatalities are down even more dramatically than other damages. The number of people killed in underground utility incidents “used to range from 40 to more than 100 a year,” Kipp said. “Now some years have fewer than 10.”
“Those are big, big decreases, and they happen without people doing things right.”

Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal

Click video to hear audio