Safe Digging Month raises awareness of the dangers of striking underground pipes and cables

With New Zealand’s extreme weather literally shifting the ground around us, it is more important than ever to check where underground utilities are before digging or excavating.

Safe Digging Month in November is designed to raise awareness of the pitfalls of not knowing what lies beneath us to avoid costly disruptions to electricity, gas, water, sewer, and communications services. Damage to any of these can result in serious injuries and loss of essential services to thousands of households and businesses.

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“Safe Digging Month is timed for November when more people are likely to be undertaking major digging on their properties, with damage to fibre optic cable on private property the most common incident,” says Phil Cornforth from beforeUdig, organisers of the awareness month.

“More than 35,000 homeowners carried out digging works on their property last year and it is vital the right prep work is done to understand what’s underneath the ground, especially with our recent wild weather causing underground utilities to shift through landslides and roadworks.

“Homeowners can’t rely on plans alone as some service cables and pipes may not actually have been recorded when installed or be present on utility plans. Things can also change due to a shift in ground levels. Previous excavation works may also have moved assets or things have changed on properties due to landscaping or boundary changes.

“As well as cutting off essential services such as fibre internet, damage to cables and pipes is a major safety risk. Damaged electricity cables can lead to electrocution, gas pipes can cause fires or explosions, burst water or waste pipes are a serious health and safety hazard, as well as cutting electricity relied upon by some for life-saving equipment in the home, such as ventilators or dialysis machines.

“We estimate that there were around 10,000 strikes to underground cables and pipes last year, most of which were to lower risk services such as fibre cables. However, there were about 500 strikes to gas pipes and probably around the same to electricity cables,” Phil says. 

One of the most infamous digging mishaps in New Zealand led to the 2017 failure of the fuel pipeline linking the Marsden Point refinery to the fuel distribution centre in Auckland. This disrupted the fuel supply to Auckland’s airports for ten days, resulting in hundreds of flight delays and supplies being rationed, with a farm digger the cause of the damage. It cost an estimated $25m to fix and caused a loss of $23 million of GDP. 

“There was no record of the digger operator requesting plans or informing the pipeline owner of their intention to work at the location. This highlights the potential impact of poor preparation, and that even if you are doing work on your own property, it can have far-reaching consequences,” Phil says.

Eighty-five percent of New Zealand’s utilities use beforeUdig as their safe digging partner so homeowners digging don’t need to contact every asset owner individually. For the remainder of utilities, beforeUdig will tell homeowners who they are and provide details for these companies to be approached directly.

The first step before digging is lodging a beforeUdig enquiry before starting work, then reviewing plans, doing visual checks, checks with an electronic locator, and marking out your site. Homeowners can then dig test holes if permitted to determine the exact location of utilities in their worksite, put protection measures in place for infrastructure to prevent damage and proceed only when all of the above measures have been carried out.