The dangers of construction work can take many different forms, depending on the specific project at hand. The types of construction accidents that understandably receive the most attention are the ones the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) refers to as the “Fatal Four”: falls, being struck by an object, electrocutions, and being caught between moving parts.
Almost every project has the potential for these kinds of injuries, and together they account for more than half of all construction worker deaths.
However, these aren’t the only kinds of construction accidents that regularly cost lives, or that occur in predictable, preventable patterns.
Even though gas explosions don’t crack the top four causes of construction worker deaths, the risk of a gas line leak at construction site workplaces is much higher than in other professional contexts. Underground gas lines are a known hazard of any construction project that involves digging, and construction companies have a responsibility to account for this and take the necessary precautions. Unfortunately, this often doesn’t happen.
If you’ve been injured by hitting a gas line at a construction site, or by the aftermath of a gas line leak at a construction site, the Stoddard Firm can help.
Excavation Errors Are the Leading Cause of Significant Gas Line Accidents
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) keeps thorough records of all underground pipeline breaches in the U.S, including natural gas. Over the past 20 years, ruptured gas distribution systems have killed an annual average of 10 people, and injured an average of 46 more.
During that time, excavation damage has almost always been the top cause of “significant incidents” — meaning ruptures that resulted in a fatality, an injury requiring inpatient treatment, or at least $50,000 in damage. Excavation accidents can account for anywhere from a quarter of these ruptures to more than half in a given year.
Obviously, construction companies need to be much more careful around gas lines for the safety of everyone. But these statistics are especially grim for construction workers. They indicate that every time a gas line breach happens, there’s a very high probability that a construction worker will be somewhere nearby, placed right in harm’s way by inadequate safety precautions.
Construction Companies Are Subject to Specific Safety Protocols When Digging
Before beginning any digging project, OSHA requires employers to check whether there are any underground installations that employees may be injured by hitting, as gas line systems are present in virtually all residential and commercial areas. Electrical cables are also sometimes installed underground, posing a similar hazard. Companies can perform this check by calling 811, a free service that will help coordinate them with the specific utility companies in question.
If a utility company doesn’t respond to information requests within the legally required time frame, usually 24 hours, companies are allowed to proceed with excavation, but only by using detection equipment to map the potentials hazards themselves. Once a team encounters an underground installation, it must be shielded, supported, or removed in whatever way is feasible and necessary to create a safe work environment.
Utility lines may also have visible markings at the surface level, and employees should be trained to check for and recognize these.
Following this step could have saved the life of one construction worker in Michigan in 2006. In that case, the construction company had called to check on the location of the underground systems, and received responses from all but one of the relevant utility companies. They decided to proceed and promptly struck a gas line belonging to the one company that had not responded. The breach caused an immediate explosion, which killed the worker. His coworkers called 911 and then noticed markings along the side of the road, identifying the location of the gas line.
When Construction Companies and High-Profile Clients Get Careless, the Danger Rises
Some of the best proof of how avoidable gas line accidents are comes from how unevenly they occur. When the rules are followed, gas line accidents should be extremely rare or nonexistent. When ignoring regulations becomes a habit or a culture, they become absurdly common.
A few years ago, the city of Sacramento, California was dealing with a particularly carelessly handled long-term construction project involving the city’s water mains. Between the years 2012 and 2016, there were at least eight separate gas line breaches associated with the project, 100% of them due to contractor error. In some cases, the supervisors had not called 811 to check for underground installations, or had ignored clear, accurate gas line markings on site. In one case, the company didn’t even notice the breach had occurred. It was only discovered when a family with a toddler and an expectant mother reported the gas smell leaking up through their yard.
As well as general disregard for safety, unsafe construction sites and practices can also stem from a lack of organization and structure. Because construction is done on a project-by-project contracting basis, business relationships can become vague or overcomplicated, leaving room for each individual company to shift responsibility onto the other companies involved.
This seems to have been the case with one Verizon construction project in 2019, also in California. Verizon hired a Florida-based engineering company to install fiberoptic cables in the Inner Richmond neighborhood of San Francisco. This engineering company then hired another, New Jersey-based subcontractor, which hired yet another subcontractor to do the actual work in the Californian city. When a worker for the final subcontractor struck a gas line, it started a fire that damaged several buildings, destroyed a restaurant, and sent flames 50 feet into the air.
In the following investigation, it was found that the second-to-last subcontractor, Advanced Fiber Works (AFW), was not licensed to operate in California. AFW argued that this didn’t matter, because they weren’t performing the physical work, but they ignored multiple inquiries into what exactly they were contributing to the project. Another contractor reported that AFW was expected to lay the actual cables, after the trench digging was complete.
How a Company Responds Immediately After a Gas Line Rupture Is Critical
Ideally, construction companies should be able to avoid disturbing gas lines at all. However, it’s also important for every excavation team to have a strong damage control plan ready in case a breach does occur, and be ready to implement it quickly.
Gas explosions can sometimes occur instantaneously when a line is breached, but more often, there is a short window of time after a leak starts when an explosion can still be prevented. This is where an efficient, well-coordinated response can save lives, prevent injuries, and contain the potential damage to surrounding property.
In one bulletin on gas line safety for construction companies, OSHA revisited the St. Cloud, Minnesota explosion to illustrate this point. In that incident, a construction crew struck a gas line shortly before Christmas of 1998. OSHA would later determine that the company had not taken the required precautions to identify underground hazards. Once breached, the gas line did not explode immediately. The worker who was operating the equipment alerted the supervisor, but the supervisor chose not to pass along the information any further, at least not in a timely manner. A bystander not associated with the project did call 911 about 15 minutes later, but by the time an emergency response team arrived and began assessing the situation, a dangerous amount of gas had collected in the basement of a nearby restaurant. Approximately 39 minutes after the line was breached, the gas buildup exploded, killing two technicians on the construction site, one person in the restaurant, and one pedestrian. At least 11 more people were also injured, one of them seriously.
Because of avoidable tragedies like these, OSHA urges employers to make sure workers at every level know to inform both emergency services and the gas provider immediately upon noticing a leak.
Gas companies usually have more complete information about their own infrastructure, and about the process of containing gas leaks in general, than construction companies do. That’s why it’s so important to involve them in the response. Some companies also provide general advice they’d like construction companies to be aware of, on top of standard OSHA requirements.
For example, one district director from CenterPoint Energy in Houston reminds construction companies to remove all personnel and possible ignition sources from areas where a gas leak has occurred, and offers the following insight on what construction companies often do wrong after rupturing a gas line:
- Attempting to repair the damaged pipe themselves, with the gas still flowing
- Attempting to extinguish the escaping gas if it catches fire
- Covering or filling in the hole where the gas is leaking, potentially forcing it into sewers and other underground paths of least resistance
One of the most important things a construction company can do to protect people from gas explosions is resist the urge to cover mistakes or take care of them “in-house.” When stakes are high and time is short, as they are during an active gas leak, the responsible move is to get the most qualified people available to the scene as fast as possible.
Gas Companies Can Also Put Construction Workers and Bystanders at Risk
Anyone managing a construction project has a responsibility to take the necessary steps to avoid disturbing gas lines, and to call for a prompt response if an accident does happen. However, gas companies may also contribute to deadly accidents by making their lines unnecessarily difficult to avoid, or by responding poorly to an incident in progress.
This happened here in Georgia in August of 2018. Contractors who were laying fiberoptic cables in Homerville accidentally ruptured a gas line and called to notify Atlanta Gas Light (AGL). The gas line had not been properly marked, and when the AGL team arrived, they fixed the rupture but did not shut off the main gas valve while working or check the nearby buildings for gas buildup. The leaking gas seeped into a sewer line and collected in a neighboring coffee shop, where it exploded, seriously injuring the three women — two employees and a customer — who were inside at the time.
The Georgia Public Service Commission initially calculated a $2.3 million penalty against AGL, which was later revised to a $347,000 donation to various preventative causes. AGL was allowed to make the donation without officially admitting any wrongdoing. However, if any of the survivors were to sue, they’d still have a good chance of winning compensation from AGL, more so than from the construction company in that particular case.
Although these scenarios are less common, utility companies can be held just as liable for damages caused by their negligence as construction companies can.
The Stoddard Firm Has the Skills and Experience to Help Gas Explosion Survivors Get Fair Compensation
The Stoddard Firm believes strongly in making sure injured workers and their families have the resources they need to rebuild their lives and heal as completely as possible. We’re experienced in employment law, personal injury, wrongful death, premises liability, product liability, and all other areas of law relevant to helping survivors of gas line explosions.
If you or a loved one have been injured by hitting a gas line during construction work, or injured as a bystander to a gas line explosion at a construction site, the Stoddard Firm can help you get the compensation you deserve. We’ll establish what happened, where the mistake occurred, and who was responsible, whether it was the construction company, the gas company, or a combination of both. We’ll also help you analyze the true cost of your injuries over the course of your lifetime, both financially and emotionally, and make sure their full weight is given due respect in court.
To talk to a lawyer about your case today, reach out to us at 678-RESULT or through our online chat function for a free consultation.