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News

Client and contractors warned over buried services risks

HSE InfoLine : 27 June, 2003  (Technical Article)
The Health & Safety Executive has highlighted the need for clients and contractors to use cable plans before digging near buried services. The warning follows the conclusion this week of a prosecution brought by HSE in which two companies were fined a total of
The Health & Safety Executive has highlighted the need for clients and contractors to use cable plans before digging near buried services. The warning follows the conclusion this week of a prosecution brought by HSE in which two companies were fined a total of 22,000 by a District Judge sitting at Birmingham Magistrates Court.

The case followed an incident on 5 March 2002 when men working for HW Martin (Fencing Contractors) Ltd speared a massive electricity distribution cable with a hand-held spike while digging a hole for a gatepost at Handsworth in Birmingham. Fortunately, the men had moved about a metre away before the 132,000 volt cable, one of several buried in a concrete duct, exploded. One man suffered superficial burns, rather than almost certain death had he still been holding the spike.

HSE's investigation revealed that several elements of accepted safe practice for avoiding buried cables had not been carried out. Most importantly, the men were not provided with plans of cables in the area. Their employer had not tried to obtain any and the client, Railtrack plc (now Network Rail Infrastructure Ltd), had not provided the plans when it authorised the work.

Published HSE guidance makes clear there are four essential elements of a safe system for avoiding buried services: planning the work, using cable plans, checking the site with a cable locator and safe hand digging techniques.

Speaking after the case, HM Principal Inspector of Railways, Allan Spence, said: 'This was a very near miss. In court, the defendants acknowledged that the job involved dangerous work and, as the District Judge said during sentencing, it was fundamental that the workmen should have had plans to help them identify where cables lay, before digging began. The plans were available either from a member of the client's own staff or utility companies.'

'The District Judge emphasised that the client bore the primary responsibility for what happened in this case. To meet their legal duty, clients need to provide contractors with information about site hazards. This client had a Company Standard procedure for providing plans to contractors and even a dedicated Buried Services Manager but the system was not being followed locally. Both companies knew what they should have done but the necessary precautions were not properly applied to this job.'

On Monday 23rd June, Network Rail Infrastructure Ltd were fined 16,000 plus costs of 1,750. HW Martin (Fencing Contractors) Ltd were fined 6000 with 1,750 costs. Both companies pleaded guilty to a single charge of breaching Section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, by failing to ensure that the workers were not exposed to risks to their safety.
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