There were 316 incidents of workers digging too close to high-pressure oil, gas, and chemical pipes without the owner’s permission in 2022, according to Linewatch, the leading pipeline safety and awareness group.
The data in its 2022 Infringement Report shows that landowners were the most likely cause of damage to pipelines in the UK. Of the 316 incidents recorded in 2022, 40% were caused by landowners. Contractors were also a cause for concern, making up 35% of infringements, which is a 12% increase on 2021. An infringement can be someone simply working near an oil, gas or chemical pipeline without the owner’s awareness and permission, through to a worker actually striking a pipe.
Fencing contractor, Elliott, went viral in June 2022 when his post-knocker hit an underground gas pipeline on a farm in Derbyshire, UK. He was lucky and escaped without injury, but that is not always the case.
Elliot comments: “It is a tough incident to talk about. For a few seconds, I simply thought that my time was up, and I was more than incredibly lucky to walk away with not so much as a scratch on me. After I recovered from the initial shock, my only thought was, ‘I don’t want anyone else going through this’. I want to make sure that anyone out there thinking of putting a hole in the ground, no matter if it is knocking in a fencing post, planting a tree, or taking on a major construction project, then they should always search before they start work.”
The Linewatch Report suggests that close to half (45%) of infringements occurred even though the person responsible for the incident was already aware of the pipeline’s existence. This is a 15% increase on the previous year and highlights a distinct casualness, in some quarters, about the dangers of working near pipelines.
Murray Peat, Manager at Linewatch, is concerned by this: “There is an assumption that high-pressure pipelines carrying flammable oil, gas, and chemicals are buried too deep underground to hit. This is far from the truth. In fact, they can be buried only as little as three feet below the surface. Given that hitting one of these pipes can cause serious injuries, and fatalities, as well as irreversible environmental damage with commensurate fines, it is clear why searching before digging is so important.”
Fencing was the most common danger activity, making up 25% of all reports. This was followed by excavation for service (14%) which refers to any work undertaken to install new services including gas, telecoms, and water supply.
In terms of severity, of all incidents recorded, nine were deemed as ‘high’ category. This refers to works that had the potential to cause serious damage. This is a decrease on the previous year. ‘Low’ risk incidents increased by 44% in 2022, the most of any category. Low risk refers to works within an easement or wayleave that had no potential for damage. Whilst this sounds like a minimal risk, it is still a worrying sign because the infringements could have been much worse had they been in closer proximity to the pipeline.
When it comes to the timings of these infringements, 1Q22 and 3Q22 recorded peak activity, which correlates with increased seasonal work such as fencing and excavation.
Murray Peat concludes: “Land maintenance is critical to the future of the UK’s 8.9 million hectares of agricultural land. However, this maintenance is consistently the biggest risk to pipeline integrity, and workers’ health and safety. The data in our Infringement Report 2022 should act as a warning for landowners to take greater care when planning their next job and to ensure they always search before they dig.”
As well as producing the Infringement Report, and promoting the awareness of safe digging, Linewatch advises those involved in digging works across the UK. During 2022, Linewatch delivered 113 free Safety Awareness Briefings to organisations across the UK to over 1700 people. It produced several new educational videos to highlight best practice when planning and undertaking works around pipelines alongside an eLearning module created in collaboration with LSBUD, titled ‘An introduction to Safe Digging’.