Guide to Underground Utilities: Managing risk on infrastructure projects

Guide to Underground Utilities: Managing risk on infrastructure projects

John Fitzgerald

John Fitzgerald


All workers, project managers and engineers have a responsibility to understand and manage the risks posed by underground utilities. This is for good reason too, because if damage or accidents occur, workers can be exposed to danger, asset owners suffer disruptions and the community are subjected to inconvenient service interruptions. Additionally, projects are usually financially responsible for repairing damaged assets which can be very expensive.

Each year, more and more assets are installed below ground, increasing the risks for brownfields infrastructure projects. Significant project resources are required to manage the utilities interface, and clients are becoming more involved in how these risks are managed on projects due to the reputational damage.

Implementing a robust process administered by competent people using the right tools is essential for every project. A project that doesn’t take this step risks much bigger cost blowouts and time delays further down the track during the construction phase when the pressure is there for the project to produce tangible results.

Before understanding the fundamentals of underground utilities, it’s important to know exactly why managing risk is important. When undertaking excavation, there’s a lot more at stake than you might think. 

Why is managing underground utility risks important? 

When it comes to highlighting the importance of underground utility risk management, there’s a few interrelated but key aspects to understand. They are: 

  • Safety: The safety of workers and the public is crucial, as many buried services can cause significant injury or even loss of life if struck.
  • Costs: Costs can ramp up quickly with damage to utilities, redesign costs, legal claims and project delays. 
  • Disruption: Local communities and businesses suffer when service interruptions occur. Projects also typically suffer disruption as repairs and investigations become the focus.

What seems like a seemingly small assumption or misjudgment on a project could leave you and your company in court. If damage to utilities or property is extensive, or if a utility company or business seeks compensation for loss of service, or in the worst case, if someone is injured or killed, you or your company’s directors can be held criminally liable.  Costs from service strikes have also sent companies into administration.

Electrical, gas and telecommunication service strikes can be some of the most costly incidents, with damages extending quickly into millions of dollars. 

However, despite all of this by following the fundamentals you can avoid risks to human health and safety, as well as unexpected costs in the overwhelming majority of cases. 

The fundamentals of underground utilities 

Effectively managing utilities reduces project risk associated with underground utilities. In fact, by avoiding uncertainty and second-guessing where a utility may be located, the benefits far outweigh the costs – often paying for themselves three or four times over. 

FSC has five fundamentals for an effective project utility management:

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1. Process

First, it’s important to have a robust procedure clearly documented and kept up to date within the organisation. Perhaps most important, this process should be updated regularly to include any existing learnings and deliver continuous improvements.

2. People 

In a service-based industry, you’re defined by your people. For any project, you should have defined permit roles i.e. initiator, verifier, approve and owner. You should also ensure the competencies required and expected in these roles are listed out, and put training in place to ensure the team is appropriately skilled.

Other key people sit within utility asset owner organisations. Relationships with these experts who intimately know and understand their infrastructure, and often need to provide consent for working close to it, can alleviate a lot of program and cost risks.

3. Implementation

When it comes to implementation, the right tools help avoid pages and pages of printed drawings. Ensure that approval flows are in place and adequately resourced to avoid roadblocks, and ensure there are independent verifiers in your permit workflow. 

4. Data

For managing varying levels of certainty, the classification system designed by the American Society of Civil Engineers is most widely adopted;

  • Quality Level D: QL-D is the most basic level of information for utility locations. It comes from existing utility records or verbal recollections. QL-D is useful primarily for project planning and route selection activities.
  • Quality Level C:. QL-C involves surveying visible above-ground utility facilities (e.g. manholes, valve boxes etc.) and correlating this information with existing utility records (QL-D information).
  • Quality Level B: QL-B involves the application of appropriate surface geophysical methods to determine the existence and horizontal position of virtually all subsurface utilities within a project’s limits.
  • Quality Level A: QL-A also known as ‘daylighting’, is the highest level of accuracy presently available. It provides information for the precise plan and profile mapping of underground utilities through the actual exposure of underground utilities, and also provides the type, size, condition, material and other characteristics of underground features. 

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Data should be managed and federated into 3D models with correct attributes, and kept up to date as new services are installed, existing ones altered or construction works undertaken around them. Dedicated personnel are required to manage data and ensure it is correctly coordinated with design and construction.

A great underground utility locating service many Australians know is DBYD. DBYD provides an invaluable resource for getting started, but data is of varying accuracy and should be used as a starting point to understand what might be present.

On-site pickup is a must on infrastructure projects. Use experienced utility locators who are able to interpret drawings and features on-site to get the most accurate data with minimal works. Exposing buried assets and surveying them, or using technology like ground-penetrating radar (GPR) is best.

5. Transparency

Finally, details on what permits are in place and their validity and status is important to be aware of. All personnel should have access to this information and the culture should be one of open dialogue.

Audits should be embraced as a tool to learn and improve. In doing so, you develop an open culture, not one of blame where you will be able to continuously improve.

Projects should engage early with utility asset owners, be open with them and seek their input to design.

FSC can help you manage underground utility risks on your project

If you’d like to chat about your own project, or get some more information about our complete utility management services, get in touch with us.

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