Damage Prevention is a Long Distance Race

Distance runners are a unique group of athletes, full of strength, endurance and determination. They often compete at a mental game on a country road, city street or dusty trail that only practice and conviction can help overcome. Utility operators, locators, excavators and contractors are really not any different than endurance runners adding on mileage as they prepare for the next big race. Utility stakeholders are responsible for practicing safe digging with a goal of zero damages, just as runners practice for the day they will cross the finish line.

According to CGA’s 2016 Damage Reporting Tool (DIRT), in 2016, there were 323,962
consolidated hit and near miss reports submitted in the U.S. and Canada, a 12.4% increase
from the year before. As the utility industry has continued to promote safe digging
practices across the nation, the efforts have resulted in a decline in the ratio of damages
as compared to construction spending. This includes a decrease in the rate of damages
caused by “Notification NOT Made” (16% in 2016), a 41% decline since 2004. The 2016
DIRT Report mentions the industry has progressed significantly throughout the last few
years, as proven by the Annual 811 Awareness Study, noting there is a high awareness for
individuals to call 811 prior to digging for those who recently completed or are planning
to start a digging project. Even as construction spending has rebounded in the last few
years, damages have stabilized. As an industry, we are moving at a good pace and in the
right direction, but just as every runner knows, practice only makes you better if you keep
your feet on the ground and continue to move forward. Even though the damage prevention system in the United States is admired by other countries, as it has shown positive, proven results over the years, there is always room for growth.

According to the CGA’s 2016 DIRT Report, “societal costs associated with underground
facility damages in the U.S. in 2016 are estimated at $1.5 billion. This does not include costs such as property damage, evacuations, road closures, environmental impacts, lawsuits, injuries, and fatalities.” In 2016, telecommunication facilities were damaged the most, resulting in 129,332 damages in the U.S., costing more than $390 million. Yet these millions are conservative, restricted to routine costs connected to damaged facilities, without taking equipment damage, legal fees, injuries and fatalities into account. As a whole, facility owners were responsible for an estimated $267 million in damages in 2016. Recognizing what hills we still need to charge will help refine current damage prevention processes and help to decrease damages and costs associated with hits and near misses. Thinking it’s easier or less expensive to simply repair a pipe or cable rather than protect it can lead to dangerous repercussions in the future.

We know that higher levels of Call Before You Dig Awareness are associated with lower percentages of damages due to “Notification NOT Made,” according to the 2016 DIRT Report. In 2015, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) issued a final rule establishing “the process for evaluating state excavation damage prevention law enforcement programs and endorsing minimum federal damage prevention standards in states where damage prevention law enforcement is deemed inadequate or does not exist.” According to the PHMSA website, this final rule establishes the process PHMSA will use to determine state excavation damage prevention law enforcement program adequacy, requirements PHMSA will enforce in inadequate programs, and includes the adjudication process for excavator proceedings where federal authority is exercised. According to CGA’s 2016 DIRT Report, after an initial state program review, the analysis suggests there is a connection between enforcement  adequacy and using 811 services and damage rates. Could a rule like this be a future step in preventing additional types of utility damages? Would this change behavior and modify the way current safety programs are structured?

If, as an industry, we don’t establish a goal or baseline, we have nothing to compare our progress to and no way to measure how fast we are progressing. Discussing current issues facing our industry and learning from professionals who practice damage prevention every day is a great way to keep safety programs moving forward.

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