Everyone has likely seen the motto, “Know What’s Below, Call Before You Dig,” either on the back of a power company’s truck, in a public service announcement, or in ten foot letters on the side of an industrial complex. But we tend to tune it out. Our day-to-day operations, while completely dependent on these subsurface assets, can continue unabated without knowing the course these consumables take to our office, garden, or car wash. Nevertheless, general public ignorance does not constitute safety when the ground is broken. It is actually quite the opposite. Not “Know[ing] What’s Below” can lead to catastrophic accidents resulting in massive fines, service interruptions to thousands, damage to and loss of property, serious injury, and death. In fact, in California and nearly every other state it is illegal to dig without first taking steps to know what’s below.
Every year since November 2003, the Common Ground Allice (CGA) has collected painstaking worked to collect data on underground utility strikes; that is every time an excavator is digging and hits, or strikes, an asset they are required to report it and the CGA complies this information. The data is collected using the Damage Information Reporting Tool (DIRT) and at the end of the year is analyzed and compiled into the annual DIRT Report. In 2015 (the most current report available), there were 363,176 reports using DIRT. Reconciling duplicate reports of the same event from different parties resulting in identifying 288,346 individual events of line strikes. If all work was conducted on an evenly weighted 24-hour basis with no holidays or breaks taken, the result is one line strike every 1.82 minutes in the United States and Canada. Some of these are no more than an excavator’s bucket teeth creating a small opening in the top of a sewer lateral, while others are catastrophic gas line ruptures resulting in multiple deaths.
Of these 288,346 individual events, 45% were a result of excavator error. That means that all other practices were upheld and the contractor conducting the digging itself either ignored the markings or did not fully communicate the findings of the One-Call responses to the equipment operator. 31% were rooted in either notification processes being insufficient or the excavator simply failing to notify the One-Call center of their upcoming excavation. A whopping 18% of all line strikes were the result of the excavator doing what was required and taking the appropriate steps to notify the One-Call center and the locating service itself was insufficient. Leaving 6% from miscellaneous root causes.
18% of all reported line strikes were due to the companies and agencies required to locate and mark the existing utilities in a proposed area failing to do so. At that level of failure, it is not important if the locate ticket was completed 99% or ignored completely, the result is the same: an underground asset was struck. Nearly one in five recorded damages was a direct result of those who possess, maintain, and disclose the subsurface utility records as well and use them to make clear and accurate field markings did not do so. Writing briefly from personal experience, I have seen 811 sanctioned locators pull up to an area of proposed excavation, pull out a map, and leave paint marks based solely on what the map indicated with visible surface features and no attempt to locate the line. A Quality Level D record should never be trusted over proven Quality Level B findings. And many times when this happens, the excavator is none the wiser. While mismarks are not the financial liability of the excavator, some line strikes lead to loss of life and limb and these cannot ever be replaced by any restitution.
So what can be done? How can excavators and those overseeing the project ensure that all digging operations will be completed without line strikes?
- Engineer and design your excavation needs around existing utilities. All major utility owner/operators maintain records on their subsurface assets. A quick phone call or email can put you on the course to accessing these records. Having records in hand will allow you to make adjustments where possible and avoid digging near pipelines, cables, and other infrastructure.
- Contact a Subsurface Utility Engineering (SUE) and/or private utility locating service provider. Many will conduct the necessary research on existing utilities and, if requested by the company securing their services, hand over copies of the acquired records. A private locator is not driven by processing a maximum number of tickets in a day and will therefore take the time to find everything possible. On top of this, many private locators implement a variety of tools in their field examination. They typically use the standard radiofrequency line locators in a variety of modes and attempt alternative methods and some may use ground penetrating radar (not offered by most One-Call locators) and other proven methods. The reality of the matter is that this will increase the cost. However, according to a Federal Highway Administration study on 71 projects in 4 states found that for every $1.00 spent on SUE resulted in $4.62 of savings. It will cost more up front, but that will be recouped through time saved and heightened safety.
- Still use 811! The event of a line strike occurring in 2015 was 1.54 out of every 1000 dig tickets processed. For the individual putting in a new mailbox, this number is fairly inconsequential. However, for the construction company that breaks ground on hundreds or thousands of job sites, this number almost guarantees they will encounter line strikes periodically. The best way for excavators to stay safe is to obey the law and put in a call to their regional One-Call service.
- Dig carefully. Even the most thorough investigation can have missing information. Utilization of spotters and the right equipment can drastically reduce the risk of line strikes.
- Report all line strike through the CGA’s Damage Information Reporting Tool. Better statistics lead to better methodology and heightened awareness.
Taking the time to understand subsurface utilities can mean safer excavations, faster completion times, and cost savings. For information on DeWalt Corporation can help you “Know What’s Below” on your next project, contact Todd Wood at 661.323.4600 or email@example.com.