Calling 811: Dial Before You Dig to Avoid Making a Costly Mistake

August 2, 2021 • Previsor

Warmer weather marks the perfect time to do outdoor work. Outdoor industries benefit from the nicer temperatures. And businesses aren’t the only ones taking advantage of the summer season.

This year, an estimated 31 million homeowners plan to pull out their shovels for improvement projects. But nearly 40 percent risk running into a utility service while they’re digging. Damaging a service line can have serious consequences. It can result in serious injury – and serious costs. Both employers and homeowners can avoid paying the price by dialing 811 before they dig.

On this episode of the WorkSAFE Podcast, we’re joined by Derek Leffert. He is the Director of External Affairs at Missouri One Call. The organization runs a toll-free telephone number 24 hours a day. They connect residents and businesses wanting to dig with local utilities, which helps prevent incidents. Leffert manages education, outreach, and communication with utility companies, businesses, and the public. He also serves as the Executive Director of the Missouri Common Ground Alliance.

First, we’ll share the basics of using 811. Then, we’ll discuss why it’s important to call before you dig. Finally, we’ll share resources available to businesses nationwide.

Listen to this episode on the WorkSAFE Podcast, or read the show notes below.

Calling 811: Digging safety hotline 101

The digging safety hotline, known nationwide as 811, is a phone number with an important purpose: to keep workers and residents safe. Both professionals and the public can use this free service. In Missouri, both are required by law to call before they start digging.

Many employees are trained to call before they start any client work. But homeowners often don’t know about the service. They often think little projects don’t matter. For example, they may overlook putting in mail box or planting a tree. However, these are often placed near roads or sidewalks – a common place for utilities.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re digging six inches or 6 feet, doesn’t matter what type of tool you’re using – track hoe, backhoe, or garden hoe,” Leffert shared. When you dial 811, your request is submitted to local utility companies. If there are service lines on the property you’re working on, then they will be marked with flags and paint. Taking the time to call can prevent accidents, and accidental damage.

Bulldozer moves dirt

The dangers of digging

The lines that power our lives often run underground. Utilities can be buried just beneath the surface, or deeper into the ground. Even if you think you know where utility lines lie, roots and vines can displace them over time. Digging without calling can pose several dangers and consequences:

  • Serious injury or death. Hitting a service line can result in electrocution. A punctured gas line might require an evacuation, or could even cause an explosion.
  • Loss of service. Cutting a fiberoptic line can cause a loss of cable TV, internet, or phone service. Further, it could affect an entire street or neighborhood.
  • Legal action. In Missouri, the attorney general can take action against both people who damage service lines, or utility companies that don’t mark them. Costs can reach up to $10,000 each day per violation.
  • Expensive fees. If you hit a utility line and it needs to be repaired, then there could be costly fees. Utility companies may charge the bill to the person or company that caused the damage. These repair fees can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In his experience, Leffert finds commercial companies tend to cause more damage. They are frequently under deadline to complete a job, and use heavier equipment. But whether it’s business owner or a homeowner, anyone can become complacent when it comes to safety.

Fees and fines often hit home more than a potential incident for some. “That’s more motivating for people to call us than the risk to their own safety,” he shared. “For whatever reason, they are willing to ignore their safety and wellbeing, but when you talk about hitting their wallet if they do something wrong, that’s when they take notice.”

Digging deep can have steep safety risks

Digging into a service line can have a hefty price tag. However, there are more costly mistakes that could be made. Serious injuries, or even death, are a possibility.

One memorable incident sticks out in Leffert’s mind. In 2012, a damaged gas line caused an explosion at a restaurant in Kansas City, MO. Over a dozen workers were injured, and one person was killed. Digging itself is also a risky business. He’s seen fatalities occur when workers become buried in trenches, unable to be freed in time.

Leffert hears the same excuses: “This was only going to take a minute”, or “I never thought something like this would happen to me”. But just like the short moment it takes to call 811, it only takes a moment for an incident to happen.

Construction workers wearing PPE work on a job site

Making the most of state and local resources

No matter where you live, a digging safety hotline is available to you. “It doesn’t matter where you’re at. If you dial 811, that’ll put you in that state’s one call center,” Leffert explained. You’ll be connected to the state number that’s right for you when you call.

If you dial 811 in Missouri, then you’ll be connected to the Missouri One Call System. Utility companies statewide fund the system. They can help you place a request, confirm that utility companies have visited your location, and understand the flags and marks they leave behind. In addition, the organization provides many resources. Free training, videos, and manuals are available to the public.

“Our goal is to make sure people go home safe at night,” he finished. For him, there’s no reason not to use the system. It’s a free resource, a great tool to add to any project, and can even save a life.

For free safety posters, sample policies, and safety toolkits, visit our Resource Library. Then, dig into trench safety in this WorkSAFE Podcast episode.

August 2, 2021
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