Accidental Damage to Underground Services


Did you know that damage to underground services could easily take place on your site?

What’s the worst that could happen?

Accidental or not, damage can cause serious problems to workers and disruption to utility services that can affect customers, the community or maybe half the city of Sydney.

If you are a Civil contractor or excavator operator working near underground services you should be aware of the potential damage to underground services.

In this article, we will talk about the cause of damage to underground service and the steps you can take when problems occur.


Most of us don’t really think about the damage that can take place when we carry out a job near underground services. You assume it will be okay!

You might assume that “she’ll be alright”.

However, recent accidents have shown that digging near the underground services without proper planning can lead to damage that causes leaks to water lines, strikes and cuts in electric cables and even explosions in gas pipes. 

What Causes Damage?

Damaged Underground Utility


Damaged underground services

There are many ways in which underground utilities can become damaged, most of which you will be able to prevent by having a better understanding of what could happen in the first place.

The causes of this can include:


      1. Poor excavation practices and planning

    If you have been in and around the industry for a while you would know or have seen it before. 

    People taking shortcuts or doing excavation activities that do not follow the approved plans and specifications, or that do not follow the approved processes, procedures and practices.

    Failure to use appropriate and maintained plant and equipment on the job can jeopardise worker’s health and safety and also be a risk to services with potential plant malfunctioning.

    Operators not maintaining adequate clearance between the mechanical equipment and underground infrastructure by first accurately locating and then potholing these underground services can turn into a big issue.

    Communication is key. 

    Inadequate communication between all parties involved in the excavation activities (e.g., excavator operator, supervisor/project manager, inspector) can be the difference between efficiency and disaster to underground services and the surrounding area.

    Planning the job is one thing, but planning out the communication between team members on-site goes a long way to protecting damage to underground services.


        1. Not knowing about Private utilities which are not included in the BYDA plans

      Some infrastructure asset owners in Australia are not members of Dial Before You Dig. So you should never assume that the plans you receive include all the relevant services on your work site.

      Many private house connections such as the water, gas, sewer, drainage and electricity services are not shown on BYDA plans because they are owned and maintained by the property owner up to a certain point or are not shown on plans as the assets plan only shows underground mains services.

      That means although the plans may be clear of any lineson your before-you dig maps, you could have a private water service that is not on the plans crossing your potential dig site.

      The best way to find out if private utilities are on your work site is to engage a certified service locator to identify these before you excavate.


          1. Inaccurate records and plans

        It’s part of the construction industry, not all plans are accurate and not all plans will show you everything you need to see before excavating around underground services.

        It’s plastered all over the duty of care statements to note that the plans provided by the asset owner members through Before You Dig Australia do not indicate the exact location of assets but merely their presence within the vicinity of the project site. 

        Changes in depths and road alignments could affect where the utilities are shown on the plan so proper planning when walking through the job and completing your online history checks will pay off here.


            1. Failure to inform asset owners

          If you’re an excavator operator or contractor, you have a duty of care and a responsibility to ensure that you properly notify any relevant parties involved in the project you’ll be digging on. 

          The asset owners of high-risk underground services should have been informed of the proposed dig several days in advance so they can arrange asset protection before any digging begins.

          Critical assets such as high-voltage electrical lines owned by Ausgrid or high-pressure gas owned by Jemena require you to notify them if you’re digging within a few metres of these services.

          You can find out who you need to notify when you review this information in the duty of care statements provided with the BYDA plans.

          Having these asset owners on site while you are digging next to these critical services gives you peace of mind and expert advice on how to tackle the situation in front of you.

          Consequences of hitting underground services

          Damaged water pipes utility


          Damage to water lines underground services

          If excavator operators hit underground water lines, electric cables or gas pipes, the consequences can be dangerous and expensive. 

          Most of the time, these are not just property damage but also health safety threats. The following are some of the most common consequences:


              1. Costly Fines and compensation 

            The excavator operator must pay for the costs of repairing the damage caused by hitting the underground service. In addition, there may be additional costs for compensation for damages suffered by third parties if it is found that safety rules have been violated during excavation work.

            Services are disrupted and in some cases, asset owners will require compensation for you taking out a service they are maintaining for their clients and customers.


                1. Temporary interruption of service

              If there is damage to an underground service line or cable, it will have to be repaired before it can be used again. This means that customers and communities who rely on that service may experience some inconvenience while their provider repairs the damage.

              We take for granted having a warm shower or cooking our meals in the evening for dinner, but what happens when the luxury of water in our taps or the electricity at our power points is no longer working?

              It wouldn’t feel great and we’d be without what we feel is just second nature when it comes to living. 

              Thinking about the community and people nearby our excavation sites and keeping in mind the minimising of damage to underground services should be front of mind when discussing toolbox talks before digging along with all safety measures.


                  1. Legal liabilities

                Not only companies may face liability claims if they cause damage to someone’s assets by accidentally hitting an underground service line with their equipment, but individuals and supervisors also face these legal liabilities.

                Everyone has a duty of care to keep people safe and to protect plants and equipment when working.

                This includes individuals who may face financial crises.


                    1. Severe injury or even death

                  Hitting a high-voltage electric cable may lead to fire, burns and electrocution, and destroy plant or equipment. Excessive smoke inhalation. Working near Ausgrid cables while hitting a high-pressure gas pipe can cause explosion burns and shut down city blocks or communities.

                  What steps need to be taken if accidents occur?

                  When an excavator fails to perform his duty of care and accidentally hits an underground service on your site, it is important that you take precautions immediately. Here are some steps you can take if you’ve damaged an underground service:

                  Electric lines

                  When an excavator’s bucket or drilling equipment strikes an underground electric cable, the cable might be live and could cause a potentially fatal shock to anyone in the area. The following are the steps you can take:


                      • If you have any reason to believe that the excavator bucket or drill may have contacted an underground cable, do not attempt to exit the machine involved unless assured that the cable is no longer live.

                      • Avoid all contact with the electric cables and involved equipment.

                      • Do not try to untangle cables from the bucket.

                      • Evacuate workers and others to a safe distance. Keep vehicles and pedestrians away from the area. 

                      • Contact asset owner and emergency personnel.

                      • Seek medical assistance if needed

                    Gas Lines

                    Gas leak incidents can be very serious. If you encounter a gas leak, the following steps should be taken:


                        • all personnel operating near the incident are to immediately evacuate their position and cease all operations

                        • maintain a safe distance while waiting for relevant authorities

                        • ensure all ignition sources, or potential ignition sources, such as equipment, vehicles, and gadgets are shut down

                        • Warn the public and pedestrians about the situation to keep the area clear

                        • Notify the organisation’s emergency contact person and have them immediately contact relevant authorities and asset owners

                        • Request medical assistance if needed

                      Water Lines

                      Water pipe strikes can also cause damage to equipment or infrastructure around you, which can lead to further issues. When this happens, you should immediately take the following precautions:


                          • Shut down any equipment that is on or near the flood 

                          • Contact your supervisor or someone at your company’s emergency response team

                          • Ensure that everyone evacuates at a safe distance

                          • Make sure all electrical equipment is unplugged, especially anything near the water.

                          • Don’t touch any electrical equipment if you’re wet or standing on a wet floor.

                          • Contact and cooperate with the asset owner

                        Telecommunication Lines

                        If you suspect that you strike some communication cables, here’s what to do:


                            • Make the site safe

                            • Stop working and make sure everyone is clear of the damaged cable.

                            • Contact the relevant owner of the asset if it has been damaged

                            • If the damaged line or cable is owned by Telstra, please report this to Telstra at 13 22 03.

                            • Review the DBYD plans to check which underground assets have been accounted for in the locating stage.

                            • Review your permit to excavate to make sure you have fulfilled your requirements

                            • Call your Certified Locator to find out what information they might have on the telecommunication cables that are on your site.

                            • Wait for the asset owner’s instructions on how to proceed.

                          Who is responsible for the damaged underground services?

                          If you are a civil contractor or excavating company working on a project, it is not uncommon to expose underground services such as a power cables or water pipes. In doing so, there is always the risk of accidental damage to underground services.

                          Asset owners can and will hold an individual or company liable for all or part of the damage caused to utilities if it is shown that they fail to perform their duty of care while working near underground services. 

                          Whenever there is damage to underground services, 

                          This is why it is so important for all parties involved in excavation work to ensure that they have taken all reasonable steps to avoid damaging underground services. 

                          If not, you may have to pay the cost of repairing the damages and compensation for the company’s loss of revenue.

                          How can you prevent accidental damage to underground services?

                          Damaged underground cable pipe utility


                          Damaged cable pipes

                          If you’re working on a construction site near underground services, here are some things you can do to prevent accidental damage:


                              1. Request Dial before you dig plans

                            Dial Before You Dig is a free, nationwide service that helps you locate underground assets like electrical, optic fibre, communications, gas, water and sewage services so that you can plan your project safely.

                            You must lodge an enquiry two business days prior to starting any excavation work. These plans will come from Dial before you dig members providing information about the presence of their assets. The plan will serve as a guide for the approximate location and not the exact location of the buried assets.

                            The good news is that DBYD makes it easy for contractors like you by providing the information needed for safe excavation work at no cost! Simply go to www.1100.com.au and enter your project details. They’ll send you a list of all the registered underground assets in your work area so that you can plan accordingly.


                                1. Onsite verification 

                              DBYD plan may only show registered utility lines, but not the private utilities owned by the private sector. Inspecting the site for evidence of any surrounding infrastructure assets clues such as pit lids, marker posts and meters is important to confirm if there are other utility lines present in the proposed work area.

                              Another way of locating buried underground assets is to engage in  DBYD certified locator, who uses advanced technology in locating underground services such as Ground Penetrating Radar and electromagnetic locating techniques


                                  1. Marked and verify buried assets

                                The certified locator will identify the type of underground services and the depth and quality level. After marking them it’s the excavator’s duty of care to pothole services using nondestructive excavation to physically expose the utilities and confirm the exact location. 


                                    1. Protect Infrastructure

                                  It is also your responsibility to communicate with all workers on site about any exposed infrastructure. You should put safety barriers or mark the location of the exposed infrastructure so that no one walks through it. If there are any hazards, such as unearthed pipes, cables or electrical boxes, you must notify everyone on-site and ensure that they remain aware of their surroundings and keep away from these areas.

                                  If you do not take the necessary precautions, you may cause damage or injury to workers or damage to the infrastructure.

                                  Knowing what’s underground before you start digging can make a whole lot of difference. Geoscope Utility Detection Services provide the most comprehensive utility investigation in the industry so you have a clear picture of what’s below. Our team of engineering professionals uses advanced state-of-the-art technology to map out utilities buried across your site.

                                  You can’t dig a hole in the ground and expect everything to be okay without following proper precautions. You have to always follow safe excavation practices and perform your duty of care when doing any excavation work. 

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