This past spring, the Common Ground Alliance (CGA) launched the “50 in 5” industry challenge, which encourages stakeholders to make actionable changes to reduce damages to critical underground utilities by 50% over the next 5 years. The “50 in 5” challenge asks stakeholders to concentrate on three focus areas that address critical issues identified by CGA’s Next Practices Initiative and the top damage root causes that contribute to more than 76% of damages to buried infrastructure as identified in the 2021 DIRT Report. The three areas of focus include effective and consistent use of 811, key excavator practices (potholing, maintaining clearance, etc.) and accurate, timely utility locating.
According to CGA President and CEO Sarah Magruder Lyle, while the damage incidents to underground infrastructure have seemed to plateau over the past few years, CGA’s updated 2022 DIRT (Damage Information Reporting Tool) Report is expected to show an uptick in incidents.
The 2022 report, which will be released later this month, provides insight and analysis on the three primary areas that are the top causes of damage when digging, and how to effectively implement best practices. In fact, Lyle says that just over three-quarters of all damages reported can be attributed to one (or more) of these pain points:
- Effective and consistent use of 811 – Professional excavators know that they’re supposed to call 811, but they may make the conscious decision not to, for a variety of reasons.
- Excavator practices – Potholing, maintaining clearance, and other safety practices that are supposed to occur once a dig site is marked.
- Accurate and timely locating –Excavators may be less likely to use 811 consistently if locates are not accurate and timely, leading to increased risk of damage.
When asked to hypothesize on the reason for 2022’s uptick in damage reports, Lyle emphasizes that there is a series of factors that have had an impact, including an overall increase in construction spending, “Think about the funding going to states from the infrastructure bill, combined with an uptick during covid, state level refurbishing of water lines and sewer lines, telecom going into more homes and rural areas,” Lyle says. “The world is becoming increasingly more congested and one of the gaps we have to address is that even when a site is located on time, we may not be using the most current and complete data.”
Like nearly every industry these days, Lyle also mentions labor shortages (and to a lesser extent, material shortages) as a problem that can cause trickle down affecting all aspects of safe digging practices. “The labor shortage is impacting our industry across the board in all roles. With every piece of the process, there’s the potential for a choke-point,” she says.
For instance, if the excavator calls 811 but there isn’t a locator available within the required time, the excavator may feel forced to start anyway, leading to a challenge. If lines are located and marked but an improperly trained excavator isn’t careful, that’s a challenge. Or if an excavator is careful but improperly trained, or hurried, or the locator has mis-marked lines, that’s a challenge as well.
Compounding the labor issues are technological challenges, particularly as many of the systems are regulated state-by-state and may not account for the rapid advances in technology. “There’s so much data being gathered but not necessarily a good process in place to disseminate it to all stakeholders,” says Lyle.
“The first thing we can do is encourage and incentivize gathering of GIS data on the assets as we put them in the ground, and as we’re putting other things in the ground,” says Lyle. “We can provide locators and excavators with that information and the better info that they have to start with, the better off everyone is.”
Lyle acknowledges that it may be an impossible task to identify all the underground assets, especially older lines, but suggests that the industry needs to continue moving forward. “We have to adjust damage prevention expectations for the realities of the industry today, and the threats we face today and tomorrow,” says Lyle. “The notion that it isn’t possible or cost-effective to map, is a thing of the past.”
For example, look at the cost of a dig-in compared to the cost of getting all the information in advance. If a crew accidentally cuts a fiber optic line in a neighborhood, then residents lose their internet and can’t work and there’s the possibility of losing something vital like 911 service, the phone company needs to be called in and there may be a need to divert traffic for workers. Hitting something like a gas or water line can require evacuating an entire neighborhood. “There’s a true domino effect in all of this,” says Lyle, who firmly believes in the old adage an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
The industry as a whole needs to change the mindset around risk assessment and continue to emphasize that safety is the number one priority — whether it’s the safety of work crews or of their own and others’ infrastructure.
“CGA’s cornerstone philosophy has always been shared responsibility,” says Lyle. “As we work to move the damage prevention industry forward, we have to think consistently about shared accountability and how each stakeholder’s actions, or lack thereof, impact the entire damage prevention process.
Stay tuned to the CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365 newsletter for continued safety coverage.