There are more than 100 billion ft of underground utilities located in North America. In the United States alone, a utility line is hit every six minutes causing power and utility disruption, injuries and even death. Compared to abrasive, traditional machinery, vacuum excavation offers a safer, smarter and more precise digging method. While vacuum excavators are considered the pioneers of safe digging, businesses and operators in the industry still need to practice and prioritize safety on and off the jobsite.
Inspect & Maintain the Equipment
Vacuum excavators tackle tough applications in a variety of environments, including harsh conditions. It is important that maintenance is performed in a timely manner, according to the manufacturer’s maintenance schedule, to ensure that a unit is functioning properly. An unmaintained unit can create additional and unnecessary hazards to a project. In addition, operators should complete daily inspections of their equipment prior to departing for a jobsite.
Know the Scope of Work
Preparing for an excavation project begins with identifying jobsite soil conditions. Soil conditions can vary from soft topsoil to clay to limestone or rock. Each of these requires a different excavation strategy: air, water, or both. Determining which excavation method is best for the job at hand will set an operator up for the most efficient and safe operation.
Air excavation is desired in applications where the soil tends to be less compact, water is not easily available, small-scale projects or backfill of the site is required. When working with buried electrical lines or brittle utilities, air excavation is also preferred due to lower operating pressures and its non-conductive nature. Hydro excavation is desired in applications where the soil is made of dense materials or may be frozen. In addition, hydro excavation does not produce nearly as much high velocity debris as air excavation, reducing the risk of damage to underground utilities and injuries to operators.
During operation, operators should keep in mind water and air pressure. When utilizing hydro excavation, water pressure should remain below 3,000 psi, during air excavation it should remain below 300 psi. Additionally, operators should consult with utility owners first, as they may already have psi requirements. For example, some gas line owners recommend using a maximum of 2,200 psi when exposing utilities with hydro excavation to prevent any damage.
Operators should also remember to constantly move the nozzle on their handgun within the excavation area and keep it approximately 8 in. above the ground or utility that is being exposed. Holding the nozzle closer than 8 in. can cause damage to the utility. If an operator is struggling to excavate through compacted soil or heavy clay, they should utilize a water heater rather than moving the nozzle closer.
Be Aware of the Surroundings
Operators should constantly be aware of their surroundings, not only when driving, but also when operating at a jobsite.
Always contact 811 before beginning any excavation project. A few days prior to digging, anyone who plans to dig should call 811 or go to their state’s 811 website to request that the location of buried utilities on their jobsite be marked, so that they are not unintentionally hit. Once all the utilities have been marked, operators should either dig carefully around the marked utilities or consider relocating the project if it is too close to a buried line.
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Some of the most dangerous hazards an operator can face is overhead objects such as power lines or trees. Hitting a power line can send volts into a unit, damaging its electronics or even electrocuting an operator. Be aware of these hazards and keep a safe distance, not only during boom operation, but also when driving or dumping debris.
After arriving on the jobsite, check the soil conditions. If the soil is soft, do not park the unit too close to the excavation site. Ground fails due to equipment weight and vibrations can cause the unit or even the operator to fall into the hole. About 1,000 U.S. workers are hurt every year due to cave-ins. Make sure that there are safety cones and signage positioned around the excavation site and any open holes are fenced off or covered. If operators are going to be working in the excavated area, be sure to use sloping or shoring.
Operators should always wear full personal protective equipment, PPE, when working on or in the vicinity of a vacuum excavator to minimize exposure to hazards. High-pressure air and water used to during excavation can lead to flying debris at high velocities. Hard hats, safety glasses, face shields, long sleeve shirts, pants and steel-toed boots protect operators from abrasions and lacerations. Operators should wear impact resistant gloves to help minimize the effects of vibrations and provide thermal protection while working. Ear plugs should also be worn at all times to protect against hearing damage. Additionally, a high visibility vest should be worn to reduce the risks in areas trafficked by moving vehicles and environments with low-light.
Safe digging needs to be a priority for every business and operator. Safe digging is about taking the proper steps before, during and after an excavation project to minimize the risks and hazards that businesses and operators face every day in the industry. A few missteps can be the difference between getting a project done properly and everyone going home safely or disaster.