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Ground Control to 811: Always call before you dig

By Jeff Griffin | Aug 14, 2023
construction vehicles

A few feet under the earth’s surface, in the utility easements of American cities and towns, are multiple pipes and cables—water, sewer and gas; conduit to electrical, telephone and data communications cables; and service lines to connect buildings to these services.

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A few feet under the earth’s surface, in the utility easements of American cities and towns, are multiple pipes and cables—water, sewer and gas; conduit to electrical, telephone and data communications cables; and service lines to connect buildings to these services.

Construction—usually while installing more utility lines—brings risk of damaging existing utilities. The consequences of hitting a buried utility range from disrupting services in a single home, to cutting essential services over a wider area, to a deadly disaster.

In December 1998, a construction crew was using an auger to dig a hole to install a utility pole in downtown St. Cloud, Minn. The auger hit the edge of a chunk of buried concrete, moving it into a gas main and rupturing it. Gas migrated along the pipe to a nearby pizza restaurant (which was fortunately vacant) and was ignited by a pilot light. The resulting explosion killed four people, including two gas company employees sent to investigate the smell of gas in the area. It also destroyed four buildings and damaged other structures. 

The first step in preventing damage to underground infrastructure is to locate and mark what’s buried in a construction area.

In the United States, calling 811 connects you to the nearest one-call center to arrange for utility location and marking. Members of 811 are utility and pipeline owners who receive notifications of locate requests. Location and marking is done either by owner personnel or a specialized contractor. It’s important to note that 811 does not arrange location and marking of utilities on private property.

“Failure to notify 811 is the single biggest root cause of damages in the United States,” said Sarah K. Magruder Lyle, president and CEO of the Common Ground Alliance (CGA), a nonprofit organization composed of stakeholders invested in preventing damage to underground infrastructure. 

Sarah K. Magruder Lyle

“And we know that most of those no-notification damages are caused by professional contractors, not homeowners. Our data also shows that for the most part, professional excavators have high awareness of the 811 system, so encouraging consistent and effective use of 811 is one of our strategic priorities.”

Seeing the data

The CGA Damage Information Reporting Tool (DIRT) collects utility damage incidents, but does not specify the companies involved.

“DIRT and additional research have underscored that these are really systemic issues,” Lyle said. “Some excavators have lost confidence in the 811 system because it doesn’t reliably perform for them; restoring that confidence is a challenge when our decades-old U.S. damage-prevention system has no ceiling on the number of locate requests that must be completed mere days after entry.

“Our recent ‘50 in 5’ challenge to the industry to reduce damages by 50% over the next five years focuses on these issues, and our Next Practices Initiative also explores innovative solutions to address them. CGA’s newest program, the Damage Prevention Institute (DPI), uses metrics-based accreditation to ensure shared accountability across key stakeholders,” she said. 

A recent CGA report noted 55% of accidental damage to buried utilities was caused by professional contractors.

Bringing interested parties together 

“CGA just created a new tagline for the 811 campaign: ‘Safety is in your hands. Every dig. Every time.’ Regardless of how deep the excavation, what equipment is used or if the site has been worked on before, excavating without marks and flags and without identifying facilities through potholing poses a serious risk not only to the utilities located on the job site, but to crew members and the community in the work area.”

She added that DPI accredits locating organizations based on metrics such as locates completed on-time and damages. 

Summarizing the impact of the call-before-you-dig process, Lyle said the implementation of the 811 process revolutionized the U.S. damage-prevention industry and made a significant impact on annual damages, as measured by the DIRT report. 

“We’re now at an inflection point as an industry,” she said. “We’re trying to use a decades-old system to manage next-generation construction and utility and infrastructure improvements.

“CGA’s 50 in 5 is a serious challenge to everyone in the damage-prevention industry to comprehensively evaluate practices, contract structure and investments in safety versus what we’re willing to pay when damages occur. Together, we are working on the next dramatic reduction to damages.” 

Established in 2000, the CGA has become the primary driving force in bringing together every interested organization and person in preventing damage to underground utility infrastructure.

The association’s membership includes representatives of utility providers and the contractors who serve them, but CGA has gone further with public awareness campaigns directed to “fringe” contractors such as plumbers, fence builders, agricultural operations and the general public.

Today, CGA has a membership of more than 1,800 individuals, organizations and sponsors from every facet of the underground utility industry and beyond. While CGA has a stake in preventing utility damage, members don’t necessarily share the approaches for preventing it. 

Membership in CGA and 811 are not the same. Members of 811 are utility and pipeline owners who receive notifications from one-call centers to locate and mark their utility lines prior to construction; CGA is a trade association that promotes effective damage-prevention practices through shared accountability. 

CGA’s website—commongroundalliance.com—is a source for comprehensive information about the organization and its resources and programs. Key programs include:

Best Practices Guide, Version 19. This is the preeminent and trusted resource for underground damage prevention, with more than 162 practices that cover all phases of the safe digging process. The practices in the guide are approved by consensus of 16 industry stakeholder groups and are designed to improve worker safety, protect vital underground infrastructure and ensure public safety during excavation activities conducted in the vicinity of existing underground facilities.

DIRT reports. Data collected by DIRT are used to identify the characteristics, themes and contributing factors leading to damages, downtime and near-misses. Findings are summarized in the annual DIRT Report, and key findings inform CGA programs such as Next Practices, Best Practices and stakeholder white papers, as well as industry-wide damage-prevention education and outreach initiatives.

Technology Advancements and Gaps in Underground Safety reports. Advances in technology can improve damage-prevention practices. CGA’s Technology Committee issues this annual report as a resource to help the damage-prevention industry identify and understand the importance of technology used to prevent damages, protect assets and increase overall safety. The report features existing damage prevention technologies, gaps in damage prevention and industry case studies.

811 and the electrical industry

Patti Lama is a director at-large for the Common Ground Alliance (CGA) and previously was manager of contract construction for Portland General Electric.

“I have represented the electrical industry as well as the CGA membership’s interests both as a manager with Portland General Electric and a damage-prevention professional,” she said. “As CGA’s governing body, the board makes key decisions about the direction of the organization and investments in key research, technology and programs that support its mission—and it’s been my pleasure to bring my expertise from the electrical facility owner/operator perspective to bear on CGA’s important work.”

Patti Lama

Lama said electric service providers are dedicated to protecting their infrastructure—however, historically, most of their lines have been above ground. With the increase in undergrounding power lines, it’s important that electric companies and their employees appreciate the risk of not marking buried assets prior to excavation—not only their lines, but other utilities located near their assets as well. 

“There is an industry-wide challenge to meet the demand for accurate and on-time locates, particularly given the high amount of construction and utility infrastructure work occurring across the country right now,” she said. 

“This is why it is key for every facility owner/operator to look for ways to improve efficiency across their damage-prevention operations.”

Lama said electric service providers and all facility owner/operators have serious opportunities to examine how they structure contracts with third-party locating operations and installation/maintenance contractors to reduce damages. 

“CGA’s Next Practices Initiative has documented effective contract structures to provide some thoughtful examples,” Lama said. “The other massive opportunity for facility owner/operators is improving the accuracy of their facility maps, and to consider sharing 811 ticket-level map info with excavators, designers and engineers. Better maps make the locating process much more efficient, and limited access to maps for 811 system end-users could dramatically impact damages to buried facilities.” 

“I can say from personal experience that if you want to be a part of the conversation about how we make a real impact on driving down damages over the next decade, making your voice heard on CGA committees and initiatives is the way to make an impact,” she said. —J.G.

About The Author

GRIFFIN, a construction journalist from Oklahoma City, can be reached at [email protected].

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