This April marks the tenth annual National Safe Digging Month, giving all individuals involved in digging projects the opportunity to reflect on safe digging best practices and ensure that all digging activity is carried out with the appropriate caution and planning. Recognized by the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives and many governors across the country, April has been chosen as the month to acknowledge proper safe digging standards and practices as the warmer weather and increase in outdoor work projects means that this month stands as the traditional beginning of the digging season.

Any project that requires digging and excavation carries a risk of hitting underground utility lines and taking the proper precautionary steps prior to breaking ground should be your highest priority, whether your project is large or small. Indeed, reports indicate that underground utility lines are damaged every nine minutes due to a dig carried out without taking the correct precautions. Moreover, the damage caused by inadvertently hitting just a single line can be significant, ranging from monetary fines and high repair costs to inconvenient power outages and even injury.

Unsafe Digging Practices are Common

Often, damage to buried utility lines occurs because the person leading the project was unaware of the risk. For example, many homeowners undertake common do-it-yourself projects such as installing a mailbox, planting a tree or building a deck without understanding that any amount of digging–even at a shallow depth and on familiar land–puts them at risk of interfering with underground utility lines. Indeed, surveys have found that 36 percent of American homeowners planning a DIY digging project won’t take the most basic safety precautions in regards to buried utilities. The sheer extent of underground utility lines highlights how great the risk of an improperly-planned digging project really is: with over 20 million miles of buried utility lines across the country, there’s over 100 yards of underground lines for every person in the United States. Moreover, hand tools such as shovels are responsible for 22 percent of all pipeline damage, emphasizing the scale of the damage caused by poorly-planned DIY digging projects.

However, professionals with extensive experience overseeing excavation projects are also susceptible to unsafe digging practices. Because federal safety standards outline required minimum depths for cable and pipeline burial, contractors sometimes assume that they know where any buried lines must be. Unfortunately, root growth, soil erosion and more can cause the expected location of underground utility lines to change over time. A lack of proper digging precautions can lead to damaged utility lines for a professional as easily as it can for a do-it-yourselfer.

Proper Safe Digging: Call 811

So what steps can you take to ensure that your digging project follows the proper safety procedures? Whether you are a homeowner putting up a fence or a professional contractor overseeing a large-scale building project, calling 811 prior to beginning digging is the easiest and most reliable way to assure a safe dig. Each state maintains its own 811 call center; when you call, you’ll be connected with a local 811 representative who will take down key information about your planned project such as its location and the type of work that you intend to do.

The 811 operator will notify those utility companies that might have lines and facilities in your digging location. The utility companies will then send over professional locators to your planned project site in order to mark the approximate locations of utility lines on the project site. These professional locators use flags, spray paint or both to clearly indicate the presence of buried utility lines. Once the locations of all utility lines have been properly marked–and you have confirmed that all potentially-affected utility providers have actually sent a professional locator to your site–you can proceed with your excavation around the marked utilities with confidence that your dig will be a safe one.

When to Call 811

Keep in mind that while a call to 811 is free and easy, it does need to be made in advance of the planned start of digging. Each state has a different required notification period, but budgeting at least a few days to a week can help guarantee that the utility companies’ professional locators have enough time to do their jobs. Both non-professionals such as homeowners engaging in a do-it-yourself projects and professionals such as contractors can contact 811; even if you’ve hired a contractor for your project, however, you should make sure that the professional has actually called 811 before giving them the go-ahead to start work.

For more information on how 811 works and about your local state call center, visit Any large-scale or complex digging projects may also benefit from the services of a private utility locator, who can mark buried utility lines with greater detail and accuracy than a utility company’s locator can.

Learn more about Safe Utility Location with Potholing.

As one of the United State’s oldest full-service Subsurface Utility Engineering (SUE) firms, Underground Services, Inc. has provided professional utility locating services throughout the country for over 50 years. Since its introduction in 1959, our trademarked SoftDig┬« system has transformed underground utility locating and is in use across North America, Australia and Europe. For more information about how we can help ensure that your next digging project is a safe one, please call us today at (610) 738-8762 or request a project estimate.

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