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22.1 Introduction to managing the risks of working near utilities and services

This section offers guidance for persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) on how to keep road and roadside workers safe when working near utilities and services located near or within the road reserve. It does not cover safe work practices for work being done specifically on utilities and services.

Utilities and services are often located within or under the road reserve:

  • underground facilities and services can include:
    • electricity
    • gas
    • water, wastewater, and storm water (three waters)
    • telecommunications
    • fuel.
  • aboveground facilities and services can include:
    • electricity
    • telecommunications.

22.2 What could go wrong when working near utilities or services?

Workers could strike a utility or service unintentionally. This can cause serious harm to workers and damage infrastructure.

The main risks which may arise from work near underground utilities and services arise from:

Striking electricity cables

Contact with underground or aboveground cables can cause severe injury (burns) and death to workers.

Damaging gas pipes

Damage to gas pipes can lead to fires or explosions if an ignition source is present. There are two main types of damage:

  • pipe damage which causes an immediate escape of gas
  • pipe damage that causes gas to escape sometime later. For example:
    • damage to a pipe wrapping may eventually lead to corrosion
    • poor reinstatement or backfilling may leave a pipe inadequately supported, putting it at risk of later damage.

The effects of damage to petrol services or oil pipelines are similar to those for gas pipelines. However, there are also significant environmental risks, particularly near waterways.

Damaging water, waste, and storm water pipes

Damage to water and wastewater pipes (especially high-pressure pipes) can injure workers, and cause contamination and health risks for workers.

Leaks from damaged underground pipes can wash away subsoil. It can also damage or reduce the support for nearby services, roads, structures, flood trenches and low-lying work areas.

Damaging telecommunication cables

Damage to fibre-optic cabling can expose workers to Class 3B lasers. Exposure to these beams can be particularly harmful to the eyes and skin.

Damage to telecommunication cables can also create an indirect risk to others by cutting off communication and access to emergency services for nearby residents or businesses.

22.3 Control measures for working near underground utilities and services

Locate underground utilities and services before work begins – plans and mark-outs

Before any work begins, especially where breaking ground is involved, identify all possible underground utilities and services. This includes confirming the locations of services and utilities that connect into private properties under footpaths and driveways, where relevant.

An initial assessment of the location of services should be done at the design stage of a project. This will allow those planning the work to:

  • allow sufficient time and resources for workers to be able to identify services safety before any other work begins
  • allow for the additional time it might take to work around those services.

You can start with plans provided by the local council or utility providers to give an indication of where underground utilities and services may be located.

You can also look for aboveground indications that there may be utilities or services below. Examples of indications include:

  • the presence of streetlights
  • illuminated traffic signs
  • valve pit covers
  • manholes
  • telecommunications pit covers
  • telecommunications chambers and service pillars
  • obvious signs of previous trench reinstatement.

Do not rely on plans and observations alone. Plans are usually only indicative of a utility or services’ location, and not all underground utilities or services will have aboveground indicators of their presence.

You will need to get a suitably qualified and competent person to locate and mark-out the locations of underground utilities or services using ground penetrating radar (GPR), hydrovac, or other relevant technology.

Marking should indicate the type of utility or service, the direction the utility or service is travelling in, and the depth of the utility or service. Where possible, have the person who did the initial locating of the services return to supervise when it is time to break ground.

Notify utility or service owners

Once you have an indication of what underground utilities or services are in the area where work is planned, notify the relevant utility or service owner.

The owner may:

  • have to isolate the utility or service (this may mean a shutdown for consumers also)
  • require you to apply for a permit before work begins
  • want to supervise the work (such as digging or backfilling) using a standover (someone from the utility or service provider who supervises the work to make sure the services are not damaged).

Confirm with the utility service owner their preferred technique for uncovering the underground service – they may have varying rules for how close you can use certain tools or machinery.

Where there are multiple services being uncovered at the same location, use the most conservative technique.

Take caution when working near underground utilities or services

Even when best attempts have been made to find the precise locations of underground utilities or services, caution should be taken at all times.

There can often be several utilities or services grouped together (including decommissioned lines) that may not have been distinguishable during initial investigations and mark-outs.

Safe ground-breaking/digging practices should be used by:

  • following the utility provider’s preferred technique for uncovering the service (if known)
  • avoiding throwing or spiking the ground in case a utility or service is penetrated
  • considering using a spotter to keep an eye out for signs of services or utilities
  • using non-conductive tools, where possible
  • training workers to be able to recognise what different services look like (bearing in mind the types of coverings used has changed over time and may vary depending on age)
  • being aware that old pipes/services may be fragile and contain harmful materials, for example:
    • if you uncover asbestos pipes or coverings, you need to follow the guidelines for dealing with asbestos. For more information, see Asbestos
    • if you uncover material containing coal tar, dispose of it safely and in accordance with approved disposal procedures.
  • assuming all utilities and services are live until proven to be disconnected and safe to work near
  • considering if uncovered utilities and services need to be supported (especially if you are digging below them).

For more information, see Section 4.2 of Excavation Safety

22.4 Control measures for working near overhead electric lines

Care should be taken when operating near overhead electric lines and power poles. For example, when operating tall mobile plant such as:

  • excavators
  • waste or recycling collection vehicles
  • tree-trimming equipment.

Contact with overhead lines can cause severe injury and death to workers. Excavating too close to a power pole could cause instability or collapse of the pole.

There are minimum safe distance rules for working near overhead power lines and power poles. Close approach consent may be required from the line owner (on a road or roadside, this will typically be the electricity distribution company). You should contact the line owner before work begins to check how close you can get, and what requirements there may be.

For mobile work such as waste and recycling collection, workers need to:

  • be aware of their vehicle height when a bin is suspended
  • make sure that it is will remain a safe distance from any overhead electric lines.

22.5 What to do if you strike a utility or service

If a utility or service is damaged in any way, the utility or service owner should be contacted immediately.

If you strike an electricity cable or an overhead line, or if a line comes down:

  • treat the cable or overhead line as ‘live’
  • get back at least 10m from the cable
  • isolate the area
  • if you are in a vehicle or plant, stay there
  • if you need to leave the vehicle or plant because of another danger (such as fire or smoke), jump well clear and do not touch the vehicle or plant and the ground at the same time
  • never attempt to cover a broken cable or try to fix it yourself
  • evacuate the immediate area.

If you hit a gas pipe, or smell or hear gas escaping:

  • switch off all machinery and remove all sources of ignition, including mobile phones
  • evacuate the immediate area
  • isolate the worksite from workers, road users, and the public
  • move at least 8m away upwind (100m for a transmission pipeline) and call Fire and Emergency New Zealand on 111
  • leave the damaged pipe to vent
  • do not attempt to cover the damaged pipe with any material, including digger buckets
  • do not start any vehicles for removal
  • do not attempt to extinguish ignited gas fires
  • do not inhale fumes.

If you hit a fibre-optic communications cable:

  • do not look directly at the cable as laser light can damage your eyesight
  • do not attempt to repair the cable.

22.6 More information on working near utilities and services