November 15, 2010
By Terry Murphy CLP

Terry MurphyMost people would not believe what exists below ground in terms of underground utility assets in Ontario. I didn’t realize the complexity of the system until several years ago when I sat on the board of the Ontario Regional Common Ground Alliance (ORCGA) representing Landscape Ontario.

Billions and billions of dollars, and miles and miles of live wires, pipes, conduits and gaslines have the potential to injure or kill you, if not managed properly. This is the first article in a series that will focus on underground utilities and damage prevention and hopefully raise our consciousness about the dangers, costs and potential liabilities that exist for the green industry. I believe as an industry we are an accident waiting to happen. We are increasing our underground hits each year and we must make an effort to reverse this trend.

Why it is important

As an industry, represented by Landscape Ontario, we must again lead the charge just as we have done in the area of health and safety management in the late 90s and early 2000. Here is why it is important:
  • Every time we dig into the soil, there is a chance of serious injury.
  • Statistics show that landscape hits of underground utilities are on the increase.
  • The landscape and fencing industry are noted for a consistent record of hits across North America.
  • Costs to the green industry are on the rise.
  • Safety organizations (MOL, WSIB, TSSA, ESA) are now pooling their records to target firms with poor safety management for general safety audits.
  • Total repair costs required from the green industry in the last five years is over $7 million.   

Green industry utility hits

Year Agriculture Fencing Irrigation Landscaping Total
2009 2 365 5 542 914
2008 0 339 3 393 735
2007 1 442 3 386 812
2006 11 366 3 317 697
2005 62 406 0 195 993
Total 76 1,898 14 1,833 3,821


We now have the opportunity to improve our poor industry record of underground hits.

The key measurement of improvement will be the number of hits of underground utilities. This data comes from a special program from the ORCGA called DIRT. LO will be working with the ORCGA that will provide us with statistics, speak at our chapter events over the winter, attend Congress 2011, and provide seminars at our winter workshop program. Awareness, education and training are the keys to our improvement.

Financial impact

The repair costs for last year were approximately $2,170,000. This is directly out of our industry bottom line. To put it in perspective, if your after tax profit was five per cent, you would need to increase sales by $44-million to absorb this pure cost. All estimates are by ORCGA members, who do this for a living.

Every time you hit a utility line, the Technical Standards and Safety Association (TSSA) will investigate and charge you between $500 and $700 for administration. The repair bill alone from the utility will vary, but on average it’s about $3,200. This is about $4,000 cost outlay per hit. I’m sure you can add that amount again in your overhead costs for your own time and energy to resolve the repair. It may then trigger a WSIB Workwell audit, which alone could cost you thousands more dollars. These costs are increasing annually.

Our focus over the next several issues will be to further explain the whole subject of the underground utility industry, give suggestions on how to avoid these hit problems, review some best practices for excavators, have some of your landscape colleagues describe their actual experiences, review how to streamline the process of obtaining locates, report on new statistics and keep you posted on any new legislative information. Please start talking about this subject at meetings, chapter events, board meetings, or one on one.

Our goal will be to reduce our landscape industry hits by over 50 per cent in the next two to three years. We can do it! Our target goal for 2013 is 270 hits. Let’s make it happen!
You may want to clip and save this series of articles on the underground industry for your company safety training sessions.
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