A few weeks ago, I attended a contractors’ association meeting that featured a roundtable session between utilities, contract locators and underground contractors. The meeting was moderated by a representative from the state’s 811 organization. The session was billed as an open discussion about the issues facing these three stakeholders in the coming construction season (I live in the northern part of the country where construction tends to slow or even stop in the winter months and then rapidly ramp up as weather warms in the spring). I was looking forward to hearing about anticipated safety issues and how these three groups were going to work to address them. Boy, was I disappointed.
The group talked for nearly an hour and virtually the entire discussion revolved around one topic, and it had very little to do with safety. It was all about the number of dig tickets. How many tickets could we anticipate based on history? How many dig tickets were street and road projects going to generate? Where in the state were the most dig tickets going to come from? What plans do the utilities have for system upgrades that will generate large ticket volumes? How much manpower was available from contract locators to make sure all those dig tickets were responded to and do the locators think they will be able to keep up? Of course, the representatives from the locating community responded with how many additional locators they have hired and where they have been deployed to respond to anticipated ticket demand. Were they going to be able to keep up? Well, there were no firm answers for that. After all, they were just guessing where the ticket load was going to come from and how great the demand was expected to be.
So, what does this discussion have to do with safety? I guess a little bit – overworked, overstressed utility locators tasked with responding to as many dig tickets as they possibly can are probably likely to cause more mistakes. People make more mistakes when they are under pressure. And then there are the delayed locates and the pressure they put on excavators trying to get their work done. If an excavator cannot get a locate done in a reasonable amount of time, will that tempt him to dig without one? For some excavators in some situations, the answer is probably yes. And what about all those newly hired locators brought on to address the added workload? Will they have any idea what they are doing when they get out there? Can we trust that their marks will be sufficiently accurate to help prevent damages?
But those things were clearly ancillary to the discussion. What seemed most important was “checking boxes.” Ticket comes in – check, locator puts down marks and flags – check, ticket gets cleared – check, excavator goes to work – check. Nobody was worried about whether the marks are in the right place or whether anything is being done to prevent damage to utilities and other property or to make excavation safer. We just have to be sure we did all the steps.
811 laws and the regulations that implement those laws were put in place to help prevent damage to underground infrastructure thereby limiting additional property damage, damage to the environment and injuries to workers and the public. During the discussion I attended, there was no mention of safety and, frankly, no mention of damage prevention. The talk was all about workload and resources needed to respond to the load.
I was reminded of the old line that when you are up to your neck (or some other part of your anatomy) in alligators, it’s tough to remember that your job was to drain the swamp. Is that what we have come to? Are we just processing dig tickets by rote? Have we lost sight of the reasons those marks need to be put on the ground before we excavate? Listening to the folks in that roundtable session, it sure seemed like it.
We need to remember that the job is not about responding to every dig ticket within 48 hours (or whatever the local jurisdiction requires). The job is about doing what is necessary to avoid damage to buried facilities thereby protecting lives and property. If all we do is check the boxes on a task list, we are missing the point.
Fred LeSage is a Senior Risk Engineer with AXA XL. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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