“Is everything broken?” A review of the UK's safe digging records industry (Article 1 of 4)
Managing Director of LSBUD (Linesearch BeforeUdig)
& Partner at Fisher German LLP
It was interesting to read recent reports, curated by and presented to Government, that suggest the country is incurring over a billion pounds’ worth of additional cost every year due to utility strikes occurring whilst work was being undertaken on underground assets. These reports were prepared by the Geospatial Commission in support of funding the NUAR (National Underground Assets Register) project. As someone who lives and breathes safe digging records, they have been of particular interest.
What is portrayed is a dis-jointed community that is selfishly costing the country millions every week by not working together (or at least not being able to due to market failures). Together with this, a narrative has been portrayed to the media that efforts are underway to solve a problem that has not been achieved before in England and that, for the first time, a collaborative community has been brought together to do it.
This is completely ignoring the community and service already successfully in place which LSBUD has created. It covers 90+ asset owners who are sharing their underground asset data with over 120,000 registered users who are making nearly 3 million searches every year and growing. This represents the majority of the industry.
This is one of many successful efforts, strategies and good practices made by asset owners, contractors and service providers across the country every day. There is plenty of evidence that the industry is performing exceptionally well. There is also plenty to show that it is continuing to improve.
Therefore, it is only right to use the evidence of what we know to provide some balance.
Understanding what is working now
It is generally accepted that there are 4 million holes dug every year across the UK. Last year, there were over 2.8 million LSBUD searches made and the number continues to rise. Although a search can cover multiple holes (particularly for larger schemes), we can deduce that at least 71% of excavations are preceded by a LSBUD search. My gut feeling is that it is more likely to be 80-90%.
As a result of this dedicated searching, both asset owners, e.g. SGN, Zayo and WWU (https://www.linesearchbeforeudig.co.uk/linesearchbeforeudig-members) and contractors e.g. Balfour Beatty, Telent and Morrison Utility Services (https://www.linesearchbeforeudig.co.uk/linesearchbeforeudig-users) are already reducing damages to market leading levels.
One of the reasons behind the increases in performance is the Membership growth of LSBUD. With over 90 asset owners, there is now much easier access to multiple assets than ever before. By the end of 2020, there will be circa 60% of asset owners’ networks available, for free, in one quick and easy search.
So, do you just need to do search and get on with it?
Certainly not- we are the first to admit that the LSBUD search is the first step in a long process to work safely on site. There are many other processes to follow and standards to adhere to in order to avoid damage to an asset. Furthermore there are several professional organisations, from professional surveyors and engineering contractors to behavioural scientists that have a significant role to play and I invite comments on the successes that they have enjoyed (N.B. for up to date case studies and best practice, USAG is an incredibly valuable resource).
Understanding the numbers of strikes
One thing that the UK is terrible at is the reporting of damages. My view is that this should be regulated, and I would happily challenge anyone to dispute that. The truth is that no-one knows how many strikes there are, what caused them or how much they cost. We must all question any numbers presented and show extreme caution when basing any decision on them, particularly if that decision is to spend millions of pounds of public money on something that already exists.
We continue to push for improvement in the industry and commit both physical and financial support to USAG and the voluntary submission of strike data. Whilst we are making an impression there, it is slower than we would want.
The figure of 60,000 strikes a year keeps getting repeated as gospel but appears to have no basis in fact and I certainly have never seen any reliable statistics to back that figure up.
If we use 10,000, 50,000 and 100,000 as potential annual numbers of strikes, then we get the following as a strike/enquiry ratio, based on 2.8 million enquiries made per annum:
10,000 strikes – 0.36% strike rate (over 99% of excavations take place without incident)
50,000 strikes – 1.79% strike rate (over 98% of excavations take place without incident)
100,000 strikes – 3.57% strike rate (over 96% of excavations take place without incident).
So even at the ‘worst case scenario’ above, more than 96 out of every 100 jobs are undertaken without incident by the widest group of stakeholders. But please bear in mind that no-one in the UK can tell you what the strike number is so it is almost impossible to get reliable data on the ‘strike rate’.
If they do claim to know, it is misleading and most likely to be wrong.
What causes the strikes?
Looking at the excavation ‘journey’, there are several potential causes of strikes, as detailed in the USAG Strike Damages Report (https://www.utilitystrikeavoidancegroup.org/strike-damages-report).
I won’t go into detail but a strike can happen through anything from inadequate locating, failure to keep adequate clearance from an exposed asset, inadequate competency or on-site behaviour, lack of supervision etc.
It’s therefore essential to understand how the 96+% who work safely manage to use existing systems and processes to mitigate the risk, rather than suggest the entire process is broken.
This is even more important when you consider that it could include a team working on an emergency job in poor weather in a remote location, or perhaps a farmer in a rural setting that isn’t aware of the necessary guidance, regulations and good practice.
What should we be doing?
Education, education and education. It is a simple concept but very difficult to achieve. Awareness, knowledge sharing, damage reporting and best practice campaigns are critical, as is building on what is already proven to work.
Unless as an industry we can make anyone putting a spade in the ground aware, and keep reminding them, we will not reduce damages enough. Only with relentless efforts can you get anywhere close, and there is plenty more to do.
There is more to follow in this ‘mini-series’ over the coming weeks but hopefully food for thought.