Most professional construction workers and excavators are familiar with safe digging practices, but each year thousands of people – mostly homeowners – are seriously injured or killed by striking underground electrical cables, gas lines, and other hidden utilities.

Every six minutes an underground utility line is damaged because someone decided to dig without following some simple safety steps, according to the Common Ground Alliance, a national underground utility safety organization.

The problem is so extensive that April has been declared as National Safe Digging Month – part of a campaign to draw attention to some simple steps homeowners and others should take before sticking a shovel into the ground.

Before you dig, call 811

Anyone who wants to plant a tree, install a fence, build a pond, or any tackle any other project that requires digging, should call 811 first.

Calling 811 will connect you to a local one-call notification center that will take your information, including the location where you plan to dig, and communicate your plans to all the appropriate utility companies.

Professional locators will be sent to the dig site to mark the presence of any underground utility lines with spray paint or flags. Once the site is accurately marked, you can begin digging safely around the marked areas.

The Common Ground Alliance advises everyone to call a few days before digging. For instance, if you plan to dig on the weekend, calling 811 on the Monday or Tuesday prior should give the locators enough time to survey and mark your area. Online requests are also taken in several states by going to call811.com. The 811 call and the service are provided free of charge.

According to the Common Ground Alliance, the results of a recent national survey found that 36 percent of homeowners who plan to dig this year for home projects do not plan to call 811 before they dig. The group says that anyone not making the required call puts “themselves and their communities at risk.”

The most common projects planned by homeowners who intend to dig are:

  • Planting a tree or shrub (63 percent)
  • Building a fence (35 percent)
  • Building a patio or deck (28 percent)
  • Installing a mailbox (16 percent)

Careless digging: dangerous and costly

The Common Ground Alliance’s survey also revealed that 47 percent of homeowners who plan to dig this year aren’t familiar with 811 or the “call before you dig” process.

Digging without knowing the approximate location of underground utilities can result in serious injuries, death, and service disruptions and costly repairs when gas, electric, communications, water, and sewer lines are damaged.

Many states will fine homeowners and even hold them liable for damaged lines if they failed to call 811 before digging.

For example, a new law passed in Kentucky this year gives the state’s Public Service Commission (PSC) the authority to police and enforce digging violations, including investigating incidents of damage to pipelines to determine whether a call to 811 was made or placed in a timely manner, whether the pipeline was located accurately and properly, and whether the excavation was conducted safely.

Under the law, excavators, including homeowners, could be penalized for not calling 811 or for ignoring location markers. Utilities could be penalized for not responding to requests to locate lines or for improperly or inaccurately locating or marking underground facilities.

Penalties for violating safe digging rules start at $1,250 for a first violation. Subsequent violations can cost the offender $3,000 the second time and $5,000 for each violation after that. Several states have similar rules and penalties.

Proper planning and patience

Lack of proper planning and impatience are two of the leading reasons why, despite potential violations, contractors and homeowners fail to call 811 before digging.

WAER Syracuse University interviewed an electrician who was severely injured on the job because he didn’t bother to call 811 first. The electrician hit an underground power cable that caused and electrical-arc explosion that he said “should have killed” him.

“It’s really what I should have done, got the thing shut down and waited for them. But I didn’t want to wait. I didn’t want to make that call, because I knew it wouldn’t happen that day and I couldn’t get that job done. So I went ahead and ended up doing about $300,000 of damage to myself.” 

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