Line Contractor

Know What's Below: Utility damage-prevention tips

Ginger Wilson / Getty Images / robuart / z_wei
Ginger Wilson / Getty Images / robuart / z_wei
Published On
Sep 9, 2021

Every work day on U.S. construction sites, there are more than 1,100 incidents that damage underground utilities, according to Common Ground Alliance’s (CGA) 2019 Damage Information Reporting Tool (DIRT), released in October 2020.

These incidents damage or cut electric lines, communications cables, natural gas pipes and water or sewer lines. Many will affect a single home and disrupt service for a few hours. Others could shut down businesses and office buildings. Cutting a major power or communications distribution cable can stop production at manufacturing plants, disrupt flights at airports or close shopping centers. 

The DIRT report is based on 2018 statistics, which was the most recent information available. That year, 509,000 incidents that damaged underground infrastructure were documented.

The three leading reasons for damage-causing accidents to underground infrastructure were not notifying One Call to arrange locates, improper excavation practices and excavating prior to verifying marker by potholing.

While these statistics may be startling, utility hits causing damage are actually down over the past decade, much to the credit of programs developed by the CGA, the not-for-profit organization based in Alexandria, Va., leading and coordinating efforts to prevent damage to underground facilities and its stakeholder members representing every industry—including electrical—that have an interest in preventing damage to underground infrastructure. 

The electrical industry is a key stakeholder, and electrical contractors can be at risk anytime they have a project that requires excavation or work that displaces soil, even when the trenching or directional drilling—both common causes of utility hits—are done by specialty subcontractors.

Line contractors have a stake in protecting buried infrastructure, too. Digging utility and sign pole holes, securing guy-wire anchors and other excavations put existing buried utilities at risk.

Indeed, one of the most deadly and costly utility strikes occurred in St. Cloud, Minn., in 2013 when a crew installing a guy-wire anchor to support a utility pole punctured a plastic gas pipe. The resulting explosion killed four people, destroyed three buildings in downtown St. Cloud and damaged 19 additional buildings, including 5 buildings wrecked so badly they had to be demolished.

An obvious and essential step in reducing the number of utility hits is to locate and mark buried facilities before any type of ground-disrupting construction begins.

The DIRT report goes further, providing background and updates about programs and practices to protect underground infrastructure and keep construction personnel and the public safe. CGA developed and routinely updates its comprehensive “Best Practices Guide” to prevent damage to underground facilities, which led the initiative to establish the 811 “Call before you dig” phone number to have existing utilities in construction areas located and marked, establish the DIRT program to gather data to identify root causes of utility hits, develop other accident-prevention programs, and educate the industry and general public about protecting buried infrastructure.

The three leading reasons for damage-causing accidents to underground infrastructure were not notifying One Call to arrange locates, improper excavation practices and excavating prior to verifying marker by potholing. 

Recent developments include the launch of the Next Practices Initiative, which consolidates the most critical damage prevention challenges into a clear call to action. The Next Practices advisory group will establish a process to communicate information to the industry and to collect responses, information and data to support Next Practices.

The third annual Technology Report monitors technical advances and identifies areas when technology could improve safety and damage prevention. 

Sarah Magruder Lyle, president and CEO of CGA, said that, over the last 15 years, the annual number of damages to buried utilities has been reduced by 50%.

“This incredible progress is a result of bringing together all damage-prevention stakeholders to solve problems and identify consensus-based best practices, including working to gain FCC designation for 811, the nationwide three-digit call before you dig number,” she said.

A Vital Link 

From anywhere in the country, a call to 811 is answered by the center nearest the location of the caller.

Magruder Lyle called One Call centers an absolutely vital link between facility operators, locators and anyone who digs. It does much more than arrange for buried facilities to be located and marked. 

“One Call centers are dedicated to educating professionals and the general public about the 811 process and safe excavation laws, which often provides very robust training for excavators, recognition programs for locators and excavators, regional conferences or damage prevention councils, and advocacy for stronger state safe digging regulations and enforcement. 

“[The centers] play a unique role in increasing the efficiency of the safe digging process, including filtering out unnecessary ticket transmissions to facility owners and improving the quality of damage data collection,” Magruder Lyle said.

One issue with One Call is that not all utility providers are members and, therefore, locating their facilities can’t be arranged through One Call. This includes many water and sanitary sewer providers. One Call membership is encouraged, but success in adding nonmembers has been mixed.

“CGA Best Practices 3.26 calls for facility owners to be members of One Call centers with very limited exceptions,” Magruder Lyle said. “However, laws governing the safe digging process and the mechanisms for enforcing those laws vary by state.”

The DIRT report analyzes information about underground damage or near-miss incidents to determine root causes, which are evaluated and shared to focus on programs to prevent underground damage and for use in education and training efforts.

“Quality damage and near-miss data is our most valuable tool for preventing future incidents and protecting underground assets and the people who dig near them,” Magruder Lyle said.

From the first DIRT report in 2004, the yearly reports show declines in damages. However, the most recent report estimated damages had increased over the prior year from 439,000 to 509,000.

“There does appear to be a plateau effect occurring in recent years in terms of damages per One Call ticket transmission and per million dollars in construction spending,” Magruder Lyle said. “The plateau likely reflects that much of the ‘low-hanging fruit’ in damage prevention has been addressed, and that the issues that remain are more complicated.”

The CGA has put a tremendous amount of focus on gathering data, she said. There is an ongoing effort to encourage participation by organizations that are not currently submitting information.

Next Practices was developed to address complicated issues such as inaccurate maps and records of underground facilities, abandoned facilities, poorly defined work areas, false emergency tickets, unexpected surges in activity, heavy workloads, misaligned financial incentives and locator training and retention. CGA programs are developed and implemented by various committees.

Magruder Lyle said that, in addition to Next Practices and an upcoming report on locating issues, the CGA’s committees are ideal venues for cross-disciplinary discussions that help locators, excavators and other stakeholders understand each other’s challenges and make meaningful adjustments that can address the root causes to improve the damage-prevention process.

CGA’s Stakeholder Advocacy program provides necessary tools and guidance for stakeholders to educate state and federal policymakers about how they can strengthen damage prevention legislation to improve public safety. By helping on-the-ground stakeholders communicate CGA’s consensus-based best practices data and other valuable program information, the Stakeholder Advocacy program can positively impact damage-prevention legislation across North America.

As several states across the country work to align their legislation with the mandates of the reauthorized federal PIPES Act, the need for CGA to have a role in gathering and sharing best practices in local advocacy became clear. Stakeholder Advocacy began its work in 2012 following a strategic planning effort. CGA members, policymakers and the general public can access the case studies, briefing tools and other materials on the CGA website.

For more information, read “You Can’t Dig Too Carefully,” Safety Leader August 2020, and “X Marks the Spot,” Electrical­ Contractor May 2020.


New technology

The Common Ground Alliance’s “Technology Advancements and Gaps in Underground Safety 2020” serves as a record of damage-prevention technology and as a source of inspiration for new applications of existing technologies and new technology development. It also identifies areas of damage prevention where additional technological investments could dramatically move us toward the zero-damage goal.

Products of interest referenced in the report include:

Swiss company Leica Geosystems brings new GPR utility-detection technology to the field with simplified workflow, automated data processing and high accuracy. The software guides the user on correct data collection to minimize mistakes. Users can locate underground utilities and visualize detected utilities with the onboard acquisition software.

Leica Geosystems’ DSX utility-detection solution improves post-processing time by detecting every type of utility and generating an intuitive and easy-to-understand 3D utility map in the field. Users no longer need to interpret a radar gram or wait for post-processing. The DSX immediately displays results with automated GPR post-processing and data analysis right in the field.

The SeeScan (San Diego) Geo Locating System is a data-driven solution for locating and mapping buried utilities. It applies a fully integrated, multisensor utility mapping system to real-world applications. By using data instead of human interpretation, the system can determine the utility's horizontal position and depth with a high degree of accuracy. —J.G.

About the Author

Jeff Griffin

Freelance Writer

Jeff Griffin, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at up-front@cox.net.

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