Murray Peat discusses the UK’s expanding gas and oil network and the significant impact this will have on the long-term safety of staff working near these pipelines.
In 2021, a total of 314 pipeline infringements and near-misses were reported by Linewatch members, according to the organisation’s Annual Infringement Report. That’s a 24% increase from the 2020 figure of 253. Although ‘landowners’ pose the greatest risk to high-pressure fuel pipelines, in terms of overall number of strikes, it’s utility companies that pose the greatest risk to worker safety.
Indeed, utility companies were responsible for 38% of infringements in 2021, just 1% lower than landowners. With these workers responsible for overseeing some large-scale digging projects across the country, this can’t be ignored.
Linewatch members account for almost 14,000km of buried oil and gas pipelines across the UK. Just one pipeline can carry up to 48 million standard cubic metres of gas per day, according to Linewatch member, CATS. If damaged, the impact can be catastrophic – to lives and the surrounding environment – which is why everyone must be aware of the dangers before starting any project. Further to this, hitting one of these pipelines could also have a substantial impact on fuel supply throughout the UK.
Engineering machinery and technologies are continually being modernised, and there are new ways of operating being unveiled on an almost daily basis, meaning projects that would once have been dug by hand over many days can now be completed in just a few hours. As a result, deeper digs are more frequent, increasing the risk to our network of pipelines.
Even as we see engineering firsts and innovations come to market, there are very set protocols and industry best practices that must be followed.
Anyone working within 50m of a high-pressure fuel pipeline must alert the pipeline operator, no matter the size and scale of the job. People often fall at this first hurdle, especially those working on smaller projects, because they don’t think their excavation works will pose a threat to the pipelines below. However, with some oil, gas and chemical pipelines buried just 3ft underground, all digging presents a risk.
Liaising with the operator in advance means it will be very clear if one of their pipelines will affect the progress of a project. Further to this, all engineering works will require pre-notification, so it is important to alert the authorities well in advance.
Strict controls apply to all third-party works that could affect a pipeline. This includes providing operators with a minimum of three working days’ notice before any works commence within 3m of a pipeline, although some operators, including National Grid, may require at least seven. This should form part of the planning stage so that it’s factored into the overall build time. The pipeline operator or an agent also needs to attend the site where work will take place within 3m of their pipeline to give written authority and provide supervision. It’s unlikely there will be a charge for the first three days, beyond this any costs may be recovered by the operator.
The simplest way to understand what pipelines might impact your project is through LSBUD, a free-to-use online service that checks works against over 100 asset owners’ underground networks, including oil, gas, electricity, fibre and water. Accessing this information enables you to be able to create a clear picture of what assets are near or close to your site and what impact they might have on your build. This ensures that you are as well prepared as possible ahead of commencing any digging works.
It is also worth mentioning that it is not just excavation that can cause damage. Tracking over a pipeline with heavy machinery or doing activities that produce excessive vibration can also have an impact on the integrity of the pipeline. To protect against this, you require pre-notification and must always consider its location before starting work.
Linewatch works on behalf of all 22 of its members, offering education on the necessities of safe digging. This includes safety literature, e-learning modules, exposure at exhibitions and shows, as well as in-house presentations.
These services are free to anyone involved in planning, or undertaking works close to Linewatch’s members’ pipelines. These sessions highlight the networks to be aware of and the best practices to follow so that we can prevent injury to people working on site and minimise the risk to the environment and underground infrastructure of pipelines.
If an emergency occurs, it is vital to report it immediately. Signs of a possible gas pipeline leak include dirt or dust blowing in the air, hissing sounds, gas odours, or bubbles in standing water. If you notice any of these issues in the vicinity of a pipeline, or even a marker post, treat it as an urgent situation.
Remove all personnel and vehicles from the vicinity immediately, extinguish naked flames, and consider that gas vapours will travel downwind. Then contact the emergency services and, if you can, make the pipeline operator aware that their asset has been struck. If you don’t already know the pipeline operator, look for the pipeline marker that will be nearby.
The safety of contractors, as well as the environment they are working in the vicinity of, is at risk whenever a spade or digger bucket breaks ground. Everyone working on these projects, from those in the design phase to those on site, should be responsible for educating themselves on preventing all incidents.
Murray Peat is manager of pipeline safety and awareness group, Linewatch.