Sheridan Wyoming Fencing Company Underground Utility Danger

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Sheridan Wyoming Fencing Barbed wire project

It seemed as though it would be just an average ordinary Monday. That I would just be taking materials to the job site and do my normal everyday duties as the owner of our company. And then I got the call… our project planner called me and told me 3 of our guys were out. We only have 6 employees so this meant half of our work force was gone for various reasons and now all the plans I had for this day would have to wait. I was going to have to step in and fill in. No problem. The jobs have to keep going and we can’t send everyone else home. I finished picking up the materials and hauled it to the project that I would be working on that day. The crew lead on that project met me and we went over what we would be doing. He mentioned this one particular gate we were going to have to install and that- “It would be the fun one” (sarcastically)

“Fun one”? I said.

“Yeah, fun as in a pain in the ass” said the lead.

“Why do you say that”?

“Because there are lots of underground utilities right next to where we have to work”

“Of course there is” I said with a bit of Monday disgust!

I walked over to the area of the project where we would be working on the fun gate and could see that the Wyoming One Call locate marks showed 3 different utilities: Electrical, Gas, and Fiber optic but I knew there was another one- water! Even though there was not a locate mark for water on the job site I knew there was a water line in the area because there was a fire hydrant about 20 feet away.

For those of you that don’t know, a call must be made into a states Onecall system to let them know you are going to be digging in the ground. This could just be some minor yard work or major construction. Both can be equality as dangerous but I would argue that the weekend yard work is likely to be more dangerous in that not all home owners are professional excavators and may not have the experience in digging around underground utilities. Professional excavators are used to working around live utilities but that doesn’t mean they too don’t have accidents. The “line strike” as we call it is where someone hits the utility line with an excavator bucket, posthole auger and even a shovel and damages it. When digging around small fiber optic lines, you can strike the line with just the pressure of the bucket being pushed into the ground next to the line without ever getting near it. Likewise, once the fiber optic line is exposed, the lines is susceptible to being damaged by falling dirt clots, hand tools or people. The only nice thing about hitting a fiber optic line is that no one generally dies as a result of the strike, just a lot of expense. However gas and electrical are a different story and just might be the only real part of my business that could keep me up at night. Most buried underground electrical is going to be very high voltage and a line strike can result in electrocution, even from the seat of machinery. Gas has a twofold danger- pressure and explosion. Once a gas line is struck, pressure is released. High pressure gas can damage other utilities and injure people in the area with flying debris but the bad part is if it explodes!

Once I had a good look at the gate with all the utilities I had to make a decision. (This is what you do as a business owner, you make decisions). The line marking were only about 15” from the dig area but a funny thing about line marking is that the lines may not be exactly where the mark is. Line makings are only as good as the science used to detect the lines and I marvel in the lack of technology in the detection instruments in this day and age. It uses the electromagnetic field put off by utility to detect its location. The magnetic field is like a radio signal being broadcast from the utility and the detection devise tries to locate the center of the broadcast. But if you have more than one line, the broadcast(s) will overlap and cause distortion in the signal. There is no way, as an excavator, to tell how many lines are in the area unless you are the one that installed it. It’s all an S.W.A.G. (Scientific Wild Ass Guess)

So with that said, as a contractor you must be prudent in your excavations (and yes, according to a state’s law, a posthole is an excavation). The Law is to dig at least 2 feet away from the locate mark to help ensure you won’t strike the line but that alone won’t protect you from hitting the line. If you’ve ever dug any kind of hole you would notice it’s very hard to keep the hole perfectly symmetrical unless you are a very experienced excavator. A posthole auger does keep a nice round hole but you are digging blind. You have no way of telling if you are getting close to a line until it’s too late! When our company sets a post, we usually pound it into the ground with a large hydraulic post pounder machine. This post pounder is like a huge jackhammer that sits on top of a post. The post has a pointed end and can be set 3-4 feet in the ground in a matter of seconds. This happens so fast that you would never know if a line has been damaged until the utility company notified you that you hit it.

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The decision that had to be made with the locate marks being so close to the dig area was whether we should pound the new post or dig a hole by hand and set it the old fashion way. My mind was made up immediately, we would dig a hole by hand (with a shovel) and I would be the one to do it! Why me you might ask? “You’re the owner of the company, shouldn’t your employees be doing the hard labor”? Well, here’s how I see it. Sure, its hard work and manual labor and I have made the large investment and took all the risks financially so I earned the right to have someone else dig this hole by hand but that is also the same reason I chose to dig the hole myself! Not only did I want to use my years of excavator experience to make sure this hole was done safely and correctly, it was more economic for me to dig the hole. I would rather have one of my guys working their craftsmanship on the project and not wasting time digging a dumb hole that anyone can do. This is where I come in. I can do the dumb little jobs that are beneath my employee’s skill level so they can continue to create a valuable product for our customer.

Isn’t that what business is all about? Creating value for your company and your customer. Bockman Group Fencing Co is all about the value in a project. We are not running a non-profit and we want our customers to rave on about our workmanship. But at the same time we are working and living within our core company values. One of those values is our HES (health, Safety and Environment) program. Our HES program says that not only will we do our business fairly and in good faith to our customer but we will also pay special close attention to the health of our employees, the safety of our employees and work with a responsibility to the environment.

I dug that hole without incident and the reason it was without incident is because we took a little extra time to ensure health and safety for our people and at the same time saved a tremendous amount of cost to my company. Health and Safety = profitability. It may seem like it took a lot of valued time to dig that hole by hand but you cannot put a cost on electrocution, burns, pressure injuries and (god forbid) death! Those kinds of things are life changing for more than just the ones that were involved.