Damage Investigation: Techniques And Best Practices

Unfortunately, underground assets strike occurs on a daily basis across Australia. The need to properly investigate the incident in a timely manner is critical for damage prevention and cost recovery.

On a damage site, the investigation should be focused on the breach of the duty of care that resulted in the underground strike; the process and procedures involved in preparing, locating and protecting the underground assets. In the civil and construction industry the process that is commonly used is the 5Ps (Plan, Prepare, Pothole, Protect and Proceed) that make up the Duty of Care.

■ Planning is the first critical step of the Duty of Care

– Obtain asset plans via the Dial before You Dig service, give at least two working days for plans to arrive. Ensure all sets of plans are onsite. If hard copy – must be readable, if digitised on a tablet (minimum 250mm diagonal screen) / laptop. Plans must be current (validity ranges from 14 to 60 days from the date of issue). Contact the asset owner (from the Dial Before You Dig confirmation sheet) if an asset is not indicated on plans.

– Almost all plans are circuit diagrams only, indicating the presence of networks in the area of interest.

■ Prepare is the second critical step of the Duty of Care

– Prepare for your works by reviewing the utility plans and contacting the utility if you need assistance.

– Look for onsite asset and infrastructure clues such as pit lids, marker posts and meters. These onsite clues will assist you in identifying the potential location of assets on site from the utility plans or where the utility may not be a Dial Before You Dig member.

– It is then recommended, unless advised otherwise by the Asset Owner member, to engage a DBYD Certified Locator.

■ Potholing is the third critical step of the Duty of Care

– Mark out all services with an approved locator

– Physically and positively identify all networks shown on plans by hand or using other non-destructive methods (vacuum excavations)

– Pothole with the guidance given by the asset owner

– Follow the requirements set out by the Asset Owner

– Don’t make any assumptions

– Don’t rely on depth and alignment readings as exact measurement

– Beware that networks can be buried in concrete or just underneath the concrete

■ Protecting the assets once located is the fourth critical step of the Duty of Care

Once exposed all services must be protected such as:

– Access identification conduits must be placed offset to the potholed services and never directly on top of a network

– Seek help from the Asset Owner to protect their networks. Cover all exposed network with a safety barrier or fencing. Some assets might need structural supports.

■ Proceeding is the fifth critical step of the Duty of Care

Once all the underground services (shown on plans) are positively identi ied:

– All staff working in close proximity are made aware of the presence and importance of these services

– Work method statements, job safety analysis, permits to excavate, etc are signed and issued to the staff performing the work onsite. Any instructions given by the asset owner to be passed down to staff doing the work onsite.

The investigation of a damage location environment varies from site to site. But, there are three main pillars of underground damage investigation that are common to all damage locations:

1. Initial Notification

This is an important step, such notification can be initiated by: damager/impactor, utilities/council, contractors, public/media, etc. The ability to get onsite as soon as the damage has occurred is very critical to information gathering. Most of the critical information required from the damage site, can be gathered in the first few hours of a damage. This critical information is quickly lost once the site is disturbed.

2. Site Reporting

A qualified investigator should report on the following main aspects of a damage to determine the breach of the Duty of Care:

  • Determine if the damaged asset was as a result of planned work or was it an emergency situation (including wear and tear).
  • Establish the actual damager
  • Record all contactors that worked on or near the damaged asset
  • Detail the site hierarchy for the various contractors (if more than one contractor working)
  • Take multiple photos and videos from all angles of the damage location. Photos are the most important evidence an investigator can take from the site. Photos should be taken in such a way so they can be identified with the site. You can never take too many photos of a damage site.

The picture on the left shows the damaged asset at the damage location.


  • Sight and document any paperwork that the damager relied on for identifying the damaged asset such as:

– Construction plans, site diaries, permission to dig permits, locator site forms, etc.

– Confirmation sheet from Dial Before You Dig and all member plans onsite

  • Dial Before You Dig is a non-profit referral service. It is state-based organisations representing most infrastructure services across Australia. It aims to promote the service to anyone associated with construction sites in order to prevent damage to its members’ assets.
  • Site clues that can help an investigator establish how the damaged occurred or could have been avoided:
  • Clues onsite – This clue should alert an investigator to look out for freshly dug earth, rutting, saw cuts, services meter, pits, manholes, poles, cabinets, repairs in fences, etc.
  • Internal services diagrams plans – This clue should alert an investigator that some properties have internal services plans and can be obtained directly from the property owners or their representatives (airports, universities, hospitals, shopping centres, schools, etc.)
  • As-built plans – This clue should alert an investigator that an as-built plan for individual properties provide much more info than the plans provided via Dial Before You Dig service (DBYD)
  • Landowners’ knowledge – This clue should alert an investigator that the owner might have installed their own services and can give good guidance on their location.
  • Local knowledge (property owners, authorities and companies) – This clue should alert an investigator that some property owners will have a good idea of what networks services their properties and where they are entering the property in the ground and through the premises. They may have had their services previous located.

Councils and local authorities could have local plans of services for individual properties such as sewer, stormwater, water, etc. (for those that are not a member of DBYD)

Local Companies – not members of DBYD (reps such as processing plants, mines, wind-farms), will be able to assist

Not all the above methods exist at any particular site. A combination of the above methods should be used by an investigator to identify how the damage occurred or could have been prevented.

3. Cost Recovery

All damaged assets need to be repaired back to their former state. This is a cost that will ultimately be paid by either the damager, owner of the damaged asset or the community.

All damages cause disruption to the community and can result in:

  • Loss of services
  • Loss of revenue
  • Brand damage

Information gathered at the site will help to determine the liability claim that will arise as a result of the repairs undertaken. The completed reports will need to include the following:

i. Site damage/repairs reports

ii. All costs associated with the damage including staff timesheets, contractor invoices, etc.

iii. Photos taken of the site (explanation of each photo)

iv. Parts of the network damaged (if possible)

v. Witness statements and reports

Vi. Investigators site diary

vii. Any material gathered onsite such as plans, damage business cards, etc.

For more information on damage investigation you can contact the author Otre Moussa on 0408279226 or email at c732841@telstra.com.

Otre Moussa- Qualified Civil Engineer with over nineteen years experience in the protecting and investigating damages to underground services in Australia. Areas of expertise include: networking with underground asset owners, public speaking, Underground Network Awareness presentations (over 3000 to educate companies, councils, and the general public on the protection of underground assets, public liability and risk assessment, contractual agreements and loss of revenue). Otre is an expert witness in courts for underground asset strikes. He has investigated over 5000 damages in Australia.

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