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It's a Jungle out there. Underground Utility Detection & Inspection Services

Safe Work Practices to Open Manhole Coverings for Performing Utility Locates

Manhole covering

Technicians that conduct underground locates see manhole coverings as the entryways to public services that also help to keep the general public safe.

Manholes are openings to enclosed spaces, such as shafts or utility vaults, often found on city streets and sidewalks. Depths of manholes can vary, some are shallow, while others can extend more than fifty feet underground. These manholes are access points to public & private utilities that lie under the surface.

A manhole cover is a removable plate that acts as a lid to the manhole’s opening. These heavy coverings prevent unauthorized individuals, materials, and other objects from falling into the access point. If you need to open a manhole safely, follow this practical guide.

Tips Before Opening a Manhole?

Use Safe Work Practices – Because manhole covers have different designs, you and your team should prepare ahead of time and have a plan in place before starting any part of the process.

Have the Right Tools – Make sure to have all the necessary manhole cover remover tools/equipment before beginning.

Secure the Work Area – Secure the work area with cones and barriers to keep pedestrians and workers safe from injury once the covering has been removed.

What Is a Manhole Hook/Puller?

A manhole hook/puller, also referred to as a manhole key, is designed to lift and remove a manhole cover. These hooks/pullers are inserted into the keyway of the manhole cover, which is a slot or opening that is perfectly shaped to fit this hook. It is common for manhole covers to have two keyways.

Manhole hooks/pullers come in various shapes and sizes, so it’s important to have the right hook for the cover you are looking to remove. There are two other manhole cover remover tools you may find useful to help open a manhole safely:

Pick/Crowbar – This multi-task tool has a point on one end and a flat horizontal claw on the other that assists to lift the edge of manhole covers that don’t have key slots.

Flat Screwdriver – A long flathead screwdriver can be used with the help of a hammer with a long handle and straight claw to assist lifting the edge of manhole covers that don’t have key slots.

Some manhole covers don’t have any keyholes built into them so you will need to insert a pick or screwdriver into the grooved slot around the rim to dig safe and pry the manhole cover open (make sure to use a block to prop the cover open).

How to Open a Manhole?

Since manhole covers typically weigh anywhere from 90 to 150 pounds, occasionally they can be too heavy for a single person to safely lift alone. It is always advised to have more than one person present when removing a manhole cover to access subsurface utilities for private underground locates or 811 locates. Below are some steps on how to lift a manhole cover properly:

Use Manhole Puller (Whenever Possible) – Manhole pullers will help reduce the strain on your back from lifting the manhole. It is always advised to use a manhole puller whenever possible.

Insert the Hook or Puller – Insert the hook/puller into the manhole cover’s keyhole and turn a quarter of the way to lock it into place. This will allow you to safely lift the covering.

Lift Vertically – With the help of another person, lift the covering vertically and safely lay it down flat on the ground next to the opening.

Use Caution – Exercise extra caution when moving the manhole cover so it doesn’t accidentally drop or slide back into the hole.

Tips and Tricks for Opening a Manhole Safely

Because manhole covers differ in design, some may require more thought and preparation to ensure you have the right tools.

  1. Loosen the Cover – In situations where the cover needs to be loosened first, strike it with a sledgehammer or mallet.
  2. Clean the Lid – When the manhole lid is covered in debris or ice, use water or a metal brush to clean around the ring first.
  3. Stand On the Opposite Side of the Keyhole – Stand on the opposite side of the utility manhole covers keyhole to leverage the hook to safely pry open the lid.
  4. Lift with Your Legs – Straighten your back and bend your knees slightly while using the hook/puller as a lever to pop open the covering. Use your legs to push down and pry up the lid to lift the manhole cover.
  5. Watch Your Hands and Feet – Always use gloves and “never” place your fingers or feet under the lid.

Use a Block – Insert a block between the lid and rim and pull the lid toward yourself and away from the manhole opening. Prop the lid on a block wherever you’re keeping it so it’s easier to replace the lid later.

Potential Dangers to Avoid

Sometimes, manhole covers will be more difficult to open or require being open for an extended period. Working around these open manholes will require strict communication and safety measures. Below are a few potential dangers to look out for when working with manhole coverings: 

  • The Lid Breaking – Sometimes, the cover can get stuck in its ring, and removal measures with a sledgehammer/mallet can cause the cover to break. This can be expensive and dangerous.
  •  Using Your Hands for Removal – No matter the circumstances, contractors should never use their hands when removing manhole lids. If the lid were to drop on your hands or feet, it could cause serious injuries.
  • Trip, Slips, or Fall Hazards – Once the covering has been removed, place a safety barrier around the open manhole and the lid to avoid slips, trips, and falls.

Importance of Safety and the Dangers of Manholes

No matter what removal method or tool you use to open a manhole, the number one priority should always be safety. 

  •  Watch Your Back – Even the most experienced professionals can injure their back when working with heavy coverings.
  •  Wear Gloves – Heavy-duty gloves are always advised. Manhole covers are often dirty, rough, rusty, and some have sharp edges.
  •  Training and Awareness – Manhole safety should always be taken very seriously. Always keep an eye on the surroundings when a manhole cover is open.

Remember it is important to incorporate these suggestions so you can lower potential risks posed by manholes and their coverings. There is no substitute for proper awareness, preparation, and training.

Contact CNI Locates Professionals to Safely Locate All Subsurface Utilities/Features

CNI Locates Ltd. is Oregon and Washington State’s leader in subsurface damage prevention. Our expert technicians specialize in an array of services to suit your needs. When you are requesting public locates (811 locates), be aware that privately owned utilities account for more than 50 percent of utilities on most properties; these private utilities are not field marked by the public locating services. To locate these utilities, you need to contact a private utility locate company like CNI Locates. CNI Locates has maintained a 99.99% success rate performing accurate locates without causing any subsurface damages. In the United States there is a utility strike every one to two minutes caused from not having underground locates prior to performing subsurface work. Please don’t add to this statistic or put yourself in harm’s way, contact us at (253)826-1177 or email [email protected] for scheduling and rate information, so you can perform your subsurface work safely.