Horizontal Drilling Safety Checklist

A horizontal directional drilling (HDD) project is one of the first steps when installing a new underground utility line. These lines include various essential services, such as sewers, drinking water, electricity, or telecommunication lines.
Striking one of these utilities is among the most common accidents when beginning an HDD project. However, these incidents are avoidable by applying the proper safety tips and practices.

Before starting any work on an HDD job site, it is critical for your crew to possess and wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). Without appropriate PPE, a drilling or machine operation incident may result in severe injury.
Use the following checklist to verify that each crew member wears the following:

- Eyes and ear protection

- Hard hat

- Electrically-insulated safety boots (steel-toe is the most common, alternatives such as aluminum-toe or composite-toe are also available)

- Suitable work gloves (must be made of laceration-resistant materials, such as leather)

- If working around roadways or areas with high vehicle traffic, high visibility safety vests

In addition, ensure that your crew does not wear the following items because they may catch on moving or rotating equipment, potentially causing or aggravating injuries.
Items to Avoid Wearing:

- Rings

- Wristwatches and smartwatches

- Loose clothing

- Long, untied hair

- Necklaces

- Bracelets

- Other types of loose jewelry


The Common Ground Alliance’s 2019 Damage Information Reporting Tool compiled over 450,000 underground utility damage incidents, and that number is increasing every year. The CGA estimates the societal costs of these damages to be approximately equivalent to $30 billion.

Conduct a Risk Assessment

Operators conduct HDD projects blindly; they do not have a direct visual of the underground digging. For this reason, it is vital to assess any potential risks and identify anything that can slow the project down or present a hazard to equipment or personnel.
Each HDD project is classified into three categories, depending on the depth and diameter of the drilling project: Mini, Midi, and Maxi. For example, a typical telecommunication cable laying project falls in the Mini category, as it takes place less than 15 ft. underground and has a total length under 600 ft.
Other utilities at similar depths include power lines and gas pipelines, requiring your crew to assess the potential risks if these utilities are damaged. For instance, striking a power line can potentially electrocute a machine operator, resulting in severe injury or death.

Locate Existing Utility Lines

The most common cause (over 29%) of these incidents is a preventable issue: No Locate Requests, or in other words, failing to locate existing utilities before starting the project, resulting in impacts or damage to pipes and cables.

The easiest way to start a project is to white-line the area intended for excavation: marking the digging site with painted white lines. Once the area has been white-lined, call 811, the universal “call before you dig” telephone number. 811 will contact utility line owners in the area and help you locate and mark their utilities inside the white-lined area.

Double-Check Locates

In some cases, 811 may not return the exact location of every line underground; they may only reveal the utility meter, leaving the corresponding utility lines unmarked. Fortunately, there are several tools your crew can use to locate pipes manually, such as the handheld underground utility locator.

Expose Lines Safely

One of the best tools you can use during a horizontal directional drilling project is the vacuum excavator. Vacuum excavators can perform soft excavation (removing dirt, sand, mud, and clay), which can help you visually locate underground lines by exposing them to daylight or via potholing. In turn, your crew and operators can keep a safe distance from the lines, preventing unwanted damage.


Once the drilling project has begun, equipment operators must follow OSHA guidelines on avoiding damaging utility lines. These guidelines are explained and clearly illustrated in directional drilling safety manuals, which should be easily accessible to every equipment operator.For example, when operating a drill, the operator must carefully keep track of their drill head and avoid striking pipes or cables. Drill heads can sometimes drift away from their intended paths; therefore, it is vital to check and mark the drill’s progress regularly.

If no incident occurs during the initial pilot hole drilling, the next stage of HDD, pulling (or pull-back), can begin, during which a back reamer bores the pilot hole out and allows the crew to pull the piping through.


As outlined in horizontal directional drilling handbooks, drilling crews should constantly communicate with equipment locator teams, using two-way radio communication devices and clear commands. Each user should confirm all directions given over the radio.

The role of equipment locators is to track and guide: walk the path that the drill head will follow, locating all possible obstacles and sources of interference with tracking devices. If the locator team detects unusual readings or potential interferences, drilling operations must stop, and drill heads must return to the last known marked position.

The locators must verify that all equipment is working as intended to find and correct the issue causing unusual readings. Drilling operations should only resume after resolving all problems.


Since the company’s first projects in the 1970s, Boreworx became one of Texas’s safest, most efficient, and cost-effective underground drilling companies. We have over 30 years of experience conducting horizontal drilling projects, with multiple thousands of feet of conduits laid down across the Lone Star State.

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