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Pipeline Inspection

Read about the basics of pipeline inspection and how to become an inspector.

Pipeline inspection is essential to meeting federal and state safety guidelines. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Pipeline inspection is essential to meeting federal and state safety guidelines.

Technicians working in pipeline inspection conduct a range of tests and evaluations to ensure that pipeline operators comply with state and federal pipeline safety guidelines. Some inspectors use measuring tools to conduct tests and maintain records on pipeline quality. The job is extremely important to companies such as oil refineries that rely on pipeline to produce their products, and it requires a high level of precision and skill.

Basics of Pipeline Inspection

According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA),  there are approximately 75 full-time pipeline inspectors working in various parts of the United States. These skilled technicians use X-ray, visual, ultrasonic and various other methods to evaluate the safety of pipelines.

In many cases, pipes are buried underground, which requires inspectors to use special devices called "pigs" to adequately check their integrity. Pigs are small computers that travel through the pipe collecting, storing and transmitting information that is analyzed by inspectors. Inspectors also employ remote visual inspection devices, such as robotic crawlers, to analyze the safety of pipeline. These crawlers are designed to travel through pipes and transmit video images to a remote observation point.

Pipeline can be either contained within one state (intrastate) or run across state lines (interstate). Most intrastate pipeline inspections are conducted by state inspectors employed by state agencies. If the pipeline is interstate, then either the federal Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS) or state inspectors will inspect the pipeline.

Becoming a Pipeline Inspector

The U.S. Department of Labor classifies pipeline inspection as part of the mining industry. Pipeline operators with significant experience can typically advance to become pipeline inspectors. A pipeline inspector needs at least five years of experience as a miner before qualifying for an inspection position. Individuals interested in pursing careers in pipeline inspection may also consider obtaining a certification, an associate's degree or a bachelor's degree. According to Simply Hired,  the average salary for pipeline inspectors in 2009 is $53,000, but the amount varies based on the employer, location, benefits and experience level.

Job Responsibilities

Pipeline inspectors perform a series of tests to evaluate various pipeline operation procedures and processes. A standard inspection typically includes:

  • Examination of pipeline operator records and equipment
  • Review of operations and maintenance manuals
  • Evaluation of operator compliance with qualification program requirements
  • Investigation of the pipeline's structural integrity

Pipeline inspections include the review of several current and historical documents to ensure that operators adhere to federal and state pipeline safety laws. These include emergency action plans, which operators must be familiar with in order to respond quickly and efficiently in the event of an accident. In addition, inspectors will check the pipeline's maximum pressure to ensure it is within legal safety limits.

During the standard inspection, pipeline inspectors review operations and maintenance manuals to ensure that operators adequately adhere to the proper operation and maintenance procedures. Operations manuals are required to include detailed instructions on the repair, testing and maintenance of pipeline; processes for preventing pipeline damage; and procedures on how to decrease hazards associated with pipeline emergencies.

Inspectors are required to document each pipeline operator, the tasks assigned to each operator and the type of training received by the operator. Pipeline inspectors conduct evaluations to confirm compliance with all documentation guidelines, as well as to assess the skill level of pipeline operators.

Lastly, a standard pipeline inspection includes review of the structural safety of the pipeline. During this process, inspectors check for leaks, cracks and other structural flaws. According to the NDT Resource Center, there are millions of miles of pipeline in the United States responsible for transporting water, crude oil and various other substances. Because pipes are susceptible to cracking, manufacturing flaws, corrosion and laborer damage, they require regular evaluation from trained professionals.

Continuing Education for Pipeline Inspectors

The OPS provides ongoing training to pipeline inspectors across the United States to ensure consistency in inspections. The agency implements inspection requirements, provides guidance and sets technical standards for the entire pipeline inspection industry. Computer-based training programs are offered to all state and federal inspectors to ensure that inspections are conducted within the guidelines of all local, state and federal pipeline safety laws. To further promote consistency among state and federal inspectors working across the country, the OPS makes its inspection protocol information available via federal and state agencies, as well.

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