Striking out underground cable strikes

Aug 07, 2015

Thousands of accidental cable strikes are recorded every year, and are among the biggest health and safety risks for engineers in the utilities sector. But a ‘sheep dip’ approach to training is not the answer, says Cognisco CEO Mary Clarke.

One of the biggest risks for engineers working in the utilities sector is accidently striking underground cables. An estimated 60,000 underground cable strikes occur every year, which can cause serious injury or death and cost businesses millions of pounds in associated damages and compensation costs.

Cable strikes are a growing problem for utilities companies and it is an issue that has challenged the industry for many years. Despite deploying a variety of cable avoidance tools, staff training and learning and development programmes, cable strikes are still happening.

Combine this issue with a workforce attitude of “we’ve always done it this way” means that some utilities are failing to take appropriate measures to mitigate risk and ensure the safety of their workers. One of the shortcomings of the training that companies have been delivering is that they have focused on assessing knowledge, rather than how people apply their knowledge on the job. Just because someone has attended a training course, it does not mean they are competent and confident about applying their knowledge in the correct way at work. This ‘sheep-dip’ – one size fits all approach to training is not helping reduce cable strikes or improve overall health and safety.

Thames Water is trying to tackle the issue of cable strikes head on. In April this year, it embarked on a five-year project that will see all its Victorian waterways and sewage works upgraded. This is a huge project with several leading companies providing engineers.

One of the main project risks is engineers’ accidently striking underground cables.

Behavioural training

To ensure the safety and compliance of all engineers and contractors that will work on the project, Thames Water has insisted that all engineers and contractors working on its new waterways upgrade project demonstrate their competence and confidence in relation to cable strike avoidance before starting work.

The company’s alliance, eight2O, and contractor Optimise are working with People Risk specialist Cognisco, which has developed a Cable Avoidance Evaluation (CAE) assessment offering a new approach to traditional cable strike avoidance training based on the latest behavioural training and assessment techniques.

The assessment is designed to help improve the competence, knowledge and attitudes of engineers by enabling managers and supervisors to uncover the specific training requirements and support needed to improve the competence, performance and safety of individual workers. The aim is to reduce the risk of underground cable strikes and improve safety standards, ensuring compliance with all safety standards set by Thames Water. This assessment uses situational judgement questions based on realistic scenarios that utilities workers encounter daily and measures the knowledge, competence and confidence of workers in all aspects of the role. The results reveal what people know, as well as their behaviour and attitude towards risk, and highlight any knowledge gaps and specific training needs so they can be addressed.

In contrast to sheep dip training, the assessments drill down into the detail of what people know, as well as how they would apply their knowledge on the job which highlights their likely behaviour and attitude towards risk. The assessments also identify specific knowledge gaps and training needs so they can be addressed.

The approach provides managers with visibility of what individuals truly know and understand, any areas of misunderstanding, which if not addressed could compromise their safety or put them or the company at risk. By building up a picture of an individual’s or teams’ likely behaviour in certain situations and where potential risks lie, a company can plan for remedial action.

The Cable Avoidance Evaluation covers seven key topics and helps engineers understand risks at every stage from the pre-dig assessment and utility mapping through to checking equipment, interpreting cables and pipework, and methods of evacuation. The aim is to increase safety behaviour, and mitigate safety risk which will reduce the likelihood of injuries and fatalities resulting from cable strikes and mitigate risks of fines and reputational damage for companies.

Managers gain in-depth information about the knowledge, confidence and attitudes of their engineers and their training needs. They can view their star performers and their areas of weakness – employees that need additional support or training or who might not be ‘fit to practice’. They will be able to make the right decisions about training and development, direct individuals to the specific training and support they require, and tackle unacceptable behaviours, and have greater confidence in the ability and safety of their workforce.

This insight enables companies to deliver tailored training and development for every individual, eradicate unacceptable behaviours and to rationalise training spend. Through this innovative assessment, companies will understand who their most competent engineers are and those that might place themselves or the company at risk. Once identified, these employees can be can be given the essential training interventions needed or even taken off the job until they have improved their competence levels and can demonstrate they are fit to practice.


To date, 1,035 plus individuals from 28 different companies working through Optimise have participated in the Cable Avoidance Evaluation and the assessment will be delivered to hundreds more engineers in the near future. Optimise is ensuring it has a competent, qualified and compliant workforce and is helping to build a culture of self-development and learning. The company is also helping to safeguard its workers from the risk of cable strikes.

Thames Water is leading the way in putting safety first and it is anticipated this technique will make a huge impact in reducing the number of cable strikes on the project. By demonstrating best practice on such a high profile project it is hoped this will also help raise industry-wide safety standards and lead to a reduction in cable strikes across the whole of the utilities sector.

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Cognisco Ltd

Mary Clarke

University Way

MK43 0FQ Bedford

United Kingdom


+44 (0)1234 757520



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