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Safety above and below: What farmers need to know

With a risk of serious injury from hitting underground pipes and cables, Linesearch Before U Dig (LSBUD) managing director Richard Broome looks at the importance of adopting safe digging practices

With farmers having to balance a massive range of roles from typical agricultural operations to business manager, ‘safe digging’ may not be the first thing a farmer thinks of when getting out of bed in the morning.

 

Still, the reality is that if a farmer hits an underground pipe or cable when digging, it could ruin everything they have worked for.

 

As farmers are expected to set and enforce their own safety guidelines, it is essential to fully understand the ramifications of hitting pipelines or cables and the ways to prevent it from happening.


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Health and Safety

 

If a farmer, or one of their contractors who often do not know the lay of that land as well as the farmer, hits an underground pipe or cable while digging they run the risk of incurring serious injuries to themselves or their workers. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reports that hundreds of injuries are caused by hitting pipes and cables each year, and farmers are one of the most at risk groups.

 

By undertaking work with limited knowledge of what is beneath them, there is a real risk that such accidents will happen.

 

Financial

 

In addition to the high costs of the repair there are many more indirect costs such as traffic disruption and loss of custom to local businesses which are all as a result of the damage. Although the cost of repairs are at the discretion of the utility provider, this will most likely be put to the farmer responsible.


According to research by the University of Birmingham, the true cost of an asset strike is 29 times the direct cost so, for every £1,000 of direct repair cost arising from a utility strike the actual cost is £29,000.


Not only will insurance claims result in premiums skyrocketing but farmers responsible for hitting an underground pipe might also have to fork out to cover fines.


If you also factor in complaints, the sheer inconvenience of damaging your local broadband, electricity or water supply and the potential environmental damage, it is clear hitting an underground pipe or cable is something to avoid.

 

Local impact

 

The impact an asset strike can have on the immediate neighbourhood must also not be underestimated.


In January 2019, a farmer in Derbyshire flooded his local village after hitting an underground water pipe while putting in a fence post using a tractor mounted post knocker. The strike shot gallons of water into the air and triggered floods that caused severe damage to surrounding homes and businesses. Local properties had to be evacuated, businesses shut down and roads closed.


The fence posts only went around 18 inches below the ground. Water pipes are very shallow in some places, with many having been laid over 100 years ago.

 

Overhead Power Lines

 

According to the Energy Networks Association, two people die each year from electrocution caused by touching power lines with machinery. Also, there have been 1,140 near-miss incidents where serious injury or death was a possibility in the past five years.

 

In recent years, farm machinery has become bigger and taller, meaning that farmers can be at risk of hitting an overhead power line during all kinds of activity, particularly when loading or unloading vehicles, tipping trailers, and when stacking materials.

 

So, it is a good idea for farmers to make sure that everyone, including staff and delivery drivers, know where the lines crossing their land are. Farmers may want to check the height of the lines on their land and if they are not high enough resolve the problem with the relevant Distribution Network Operator.

 

The Solution

 

The ramifications of hitting an underground pipe or cable can be avoided with a thorough search on a central portal before digging. Farmers should check accurate utility plans that clearly show where any pipes and cables are buried before any digging starts.

 

These searches can be done for free through the LSBUD online search service.

 

It is crucial for farm contractors working on unfamiliar land to perform asset searches before digging, but so too should farmers working their own land.

 

The risks associated with blind digging simply are not worth taking.

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