Northern Ireland

700 underground cables hit a year

workmen digging up a pavement
Image caption Contractors said the lives of their workmen depend on accurate records being kept

Underground cables have been struck by workmen in Northern Ireland 700 times in the past year, it has been revealed.

Despite efforts to avoid cables, workers repairing roads and pavements continue to accidentally hit them.

Some of the breakages involve high voltage cables.

The road contracting industry has claimed the failure of utility companies to accurately map underground cables and pipes could lead to serious injury or death.

We hear a lot about safety concerns for road users and pedestrians.

But, according to the Quarry Products Association which represents many of the road contracting firms, those at greatest risk may be the digger drivers and workmen whose job it is to excavate our roads and repair our pavements.

Every day teams of work men have to drill down into a maze of electricity cables and gas mains, never knowing when they might strike a cable carrying a potentially fatal voltage.

While utility companies and their contractors are obliged to map where they have laid cables and pipes, the road contractors complain of a lack of detail.

The contractors said the lives of their workmen coming behind the utility companies depend on accurate records being kept.

Out on site in west Belfast, Craig Chisholm of John McQuillan Contracts, explained that when starting a pavement resurfacing job, the men dig a number of trial holes and use a special scanner to try and locate cables and pipes.

Cable moves

But many contractors said there must be a greater onus on the utility companies to provide accurate information on where pipes and cables are positioned.

Northern Ireland Electricity (NIE) responded by pointing to situations where its cables are moved without it being notified.

"Some of our cables have been in the ground for 50 or 60 years and lots of people have dug in the ground since," Roy Coulter of NIE said.

A protocol on safe digging techniques has been developed to reduce the risk of fracturing a pipe or slicing though a high voltage cable but the number of underground strikes suggest there are continuing dangers.

"In the last six months we have had 247 strikes of underground services, 10 of those involved high voltage cables, fortunately we had no one injured," said Ken Logan of the Health and Safety Executive.

Road contractors though are worried about their work crews and are urging the utilities and government to invest in new screening technology which would help pinpoint the location and depth of pipes and cables.

"The recording of the location of services is not up to standards and will ultimately lead to serious injury or death," said Gordon Best of the Quarry Products Association.