Increasing The Visibility Of Safe Digging Plans In The UK

Providing asset records to all those who need them reduces the risk of utility strikes. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it?

As a small island, with a large population and a long industrial history, the UK has many organizations with buried infrastructure; some of which operate working assets that have been in situ for hundreds of years. Some of these organizations own hundreds of thousands of miles of assets while others may only own a few feet. What connects them is the duty to protect their infrastructure from third party damage, although there are varying interpretations of what they need to do to achieve this.

Contrary to practices elsewhere around the world, the One Call principle has not been enforced through legislation in the UK. The third-party inquirer carries the responsibility to make the necessary checks for which assets may be near the job site. There are various legislative requirements which state that utility networks need to share information, but nothing specific to say what method, how quickly and at what cost.

As a result, there has always been a myriad of practices utilized by the UK’s asset owners. Many originally developed their own systems to provide plans such as simple GIS viewers, supplying mapping CDs, and email, postal or telephone services.

Some will provide asset plans free of charge, others will charge any non-statutory inquirers, and some even demand a fee to check if they have any assets in a location (this tends to be particularly prevalent in the Telecom sector). Timeframe for responses can be up to 28 days!

Understanding Responsibilities and Learning from Experience

Irrespective of the practices, the focus of responsibility is on the person doing the work, getting the plans and locating the assets themselves before work commences. Accordingly, they need to know who may have assets, how to contact them and then spend many hours compiling the information. With hundreds of organizations owning underground infrastructure, knowing who to contact in any given location can be a considerable challenge.

Due to the uncertainty, there have historically been some high profile near misses; none closer than an incident in 2003 in Hunton Hill, Birmingham. The area is densely populated and close to several major transport networks.

A subcontracting company undertaking a gas connection, working from incomplete plans, mistook a 12” multi-fuel pipeline for a six-inch gas pipeline (that ran down the adjacent street) and started drilling the pipeline (see Figure 1). Those undertaking the work were unaware that gas/oil (and subsequently petrol) was running through the pipe at more than 80BAR. This incident is the closest the UK has come to a high-profile fuel pipeline related incident and has fortunately served as a stark learning tool for thousands of-contractors across the UK without loss of life. Reports at the time suggested that there could have been hundreds of fatalities if the pipeline had ruptured.

Learning From the Causes of Utility Strikes

Despite a strong health and safety culture in the UK, many asset owners do not record the underlying cause of each utility strike or near miss. The Line-watch Group ( compiles an annual near miss report with detailed analysis from its members, which are predominantly fuel and gas transmission pipeline operators. Unfortunately, such methods of recording data are not shared by the larger distribution utility network operators.

The Utility Strike Avoidance Group (USAG) also plays a key role in this area, providing resources for safe digging practices and producing an annual report based on strike reports from across the sectors. The data is provided by a wide range of stakeholders across the industry and while well received, the conclusions are limited to the information held by its contributors on the causes of each strike.

As a result, there is too little linkage between the methods of plan provision and the risk of utility strikes, with some internal departments not aware of each other’s practices. Established international studies such as the U.S. DIRT Report (http:// reinforce how critical a One Call system is for any damage prevention strategy.

Figure 1: Cut-out of pipeline showing epoxy shell repair

The good news is that utility strike avoidance is gathering importance and attention across all sectors in the UK; not just in the higher risk sectors (fuel/gas/electricity,) but also including Telecom operators who are aware their networks are part of the critical national infrastructure.

Figure 2: Overview of LSBUD Architecture

Linking Plan Provision to Damage Prevention

Accordingly, there is a growing trend to link the provision of asset records to any near misses or strikes so that lessons can be learned. Particularly in today’s cyber security conscious environment, and with the risk of terrorism a real concern, this can’t just be all asset owners putting their assets on a single map and giving it to everyone. Any sharing needs to be done with a security-minded approach.

LinesearchbeforeUdig (LSBUD) is a free-to-use service that is modeled on the One Call principle, allowing instant results on behalf of multiple asset owners. It was started in 2003 with just four transmission fuel pipeline operators, designed to improve safety of the networks and to allow inquirers to work safely and efficiently. Now in its 15th year, it protects more than 70 members’ assets, including more than 600,000 km of critical national infrastructure, including:

• Gas transmission and distribution networks

• Electricity transmission and distribution networks

• High pressure hydrocarbon pipelines

• Water and sewerage networks

• Fibre optic cable networks

• District heating networks

It processes more than 2.25 million inquiries per year, approximately 10,000 per working day. That’s the same volume of inquiries in a day that the service received per year back in 2003. Based on a saving to the inquirer of five minutes per member, (350 minutes per search), it saves more than 13 million man hours per year.

A key advantage is that it allows its members to collaborate in the One Call manner, but also allows for each member to apply specific rules and processes in their environments. An indicative snapshot of the architecture is shown in Figure 2.

The service allows each asset owner to significantly increase the visibility of their assets to those undertaking work and by using automated plan response software, they can achieve this with a net reduction in administrative requirements.

SGN manages the gas distribution network (GDN) across Scotland and the south of England, providing gas to more than 5.9 million people through a 74,000 km gas pipeline network. Part of its responsibility to provide gas to its customers includes ensuring the safety of its asset network from accidental damage by third parties working near the pipeline.

SGN joined the service in April 2017. The initial results are shown in Figure 3.

Reducing the turnaround time from 15 days to just four minutes, as well as significantly increasing the volume of responses sent, helped the SGN and LSBUD Teams to be shortlisted for the “Streetworks UK Best Collaborative Work” Award. A full case study is available on the LSBUD website at (https://cdn.linesearchbeforeudig.

Using the System as an Active Asset Management Platform

One of the most exciting aspects is that SGN uses the system as an active asset management platform to not just provide the plans, but also to understand more about what works are taking place near its network. Through configurable settings, its Plant Protection Officers are alerted when particular types of work are taking place near various asset types. For example, if there is deep excavation work planned near a high-pressure gas main, the relevant SGN officers are made aware of the work and can engage with the third party at an early stage to provide advice and support on digging safely.

Figure 3: Summary of SGN plan response statistics

LSBUD is working with SGN to ensure further enhancements can be made to assess the multitude of work taking place near its network. Being able to analyze data on a large scale through LSBUD will help further support SGN’s asset management policy in years to come, ensuring the continued safety of its network and the general public.


It is a promising time for damage prevention in the UK, with many bodies increasingly linking the better provision of asset records as a fundamental driver for the reduction in asset strikes. It is encouraging to see how major utilities such as SGN, UK Power Networks, Western Power Distribution, National Grid and many more are collaborating for the greater good of the industry. Through cooperation and collaboration, all stakeholders are reaping the benefits and re-emphasising the view of our colleagues across the pond in the U.S. that damage prevention really is a responsibility shared by all.

Richard Broome BSc (Hons) MRICS FAAV is Managing Director of LinesearchbeforeUdig (LSBUD), Partner of Fisher German LLP and Steering Group Member of the Utility Strike Avoidance Group. He can be reached at

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