Digging for Success: The Marks Mean Everything

Every year, tens of thousands of visitors travel great distances to look at ancient cave walls covered with markings that most of them can’t decipher. The visitors know these symbols and drawings were a form of communication; at one time, they meant something important enough to write down but they’re too primitive to be easily understood today.

Modern human communication is more sophisticated. Our written language allows for detailed messaging, and digital communication travels at speeds we couldn’t imagine a few years ago. But still, sometimes a simple line, an arrow, a drawing, or a certain color does an important job.

When preparing a patient for a detailed and complex surgery, medical staffers help eliminate the possibility of error by marking the body part to be repaired or removed. Those simple marks have prevented lawsuits. Similarly, mistakes made by excavators need to be prevented, and simple methods of communication can do the trick IF everyone understands them.

In the business of underground utility safety, the challenge is to assure that any excavator, regardless of knowledge or experience level, can perform a safe and successful excavation after notifying the One Call Center and providing basic information on the proposed excavation.

When facility owners are made aware of an upcoming excavation, they typically rely on markings to communicate to the excavator where their underground facilities are located. They use codes, policies and industry standards to determine the color of the marks, symbols, abbreviations, dots, strikes, etc. that identify the types and locations of utilities so excavators can avoid them.

Yet in many situations, the excavator has no knowledge that a code, a policy or a standard even exists. They may as well be staring at a cave wall. And what happens next is easy to guess.

Whenever a facility is damaged, an investigator will seek a “root cause.” This crucial process identifies the cause of the damage, determines who is ultimately liable for the damages and allows preventative actions to be taken. But significant contributing causes may go unconsidered, and some of them have to do with opportunities the parties involved did not pursue.

If the industry’s goal is to prevent excavation damage, it is crucial that everyone involved in the process looks beyond the minimum requirements to avoid liability and considers every action they can take to prevent damage.

The Excavator

State laws vary on actions required of excavators prior to excavating. One basic responsibility is to identify the precise location of the job, and this is not always convenient or easy. When a homeowner intends to remove a tree from the yard, it is easier for the excavator to request “mark entire lot” and be done with it. But for the facility owner, this can be frustrating.

A “mark entire lot” order requires every facility touching that lot to be marked. Since the average residential lot has sewer, water, gas, phone, cable TV and electric service, this can be complicated. If the excavator simply identifies the tree to be removed, the facility owners can more easily determine whether their facilities need to be protected by markings.

Of course, nothing is protected by markings that aren’t understood. We reminded our kids, “If you don’t understand your schoolwork, ask questions!” But every year, underground facilities are damaged because the excavator didn’t understand the markings and failed to ask for clarification.

Just as a student needs to understand directions, an excavator must understand markings. And an excavator also has “homework;” a pre-excavation survey of the jobsite is essential. If the marks don’t make sense or appear to be missing, the excavator has a duty to ask. A prudent excavator will also look for jobsite indicators to verify that the marks make sense. A gas meter, a streetlight, a pedestal — these are some common indicators. Marks on the jobsite should align with the indicators. When an excavator commences a job without understanding the marks and checking for indicators, the excavator and the public are both placed at risk.

The One Call Center

Any good medical professional working with a patient accepts his or her responsibility to 1) outline the situation 2) list, in order, what needs to be done about it, and 3) explain what’s probably going to happen next. Similarly, a One Call Center customer service rep has an opportunity to educate the caller and share information relevant to the request. This opportunity goes well beyond taking down information about the proposed excavation and passing it on to the facility owners. Public education messages include:

1) What the excavator can expect the facility operator to do.

2) Does the excavator understand the markings? If not, the customer service rep can explain, or tell the caller where to find the information.

3) Does the excavator know what a flag means? The service rep can explain what to do with the flags during and after the excavation.

4) The rep can also explain how to determine the status of requested locate marks.

Remember, it requires no specific education, no licensing and no training to be an excavator; people who perform this work need to be taught industry basics to perform safely. Opportunities to educate should never be overlooked.

The Facility Owner

Imagine approaching a stoplight in your car. You’re looking for information — red, green, yellow. An arrow, maybe. But the light is flashing a signal of green and red stripes. Confusing and annoying, right? But some facility companies place striped flags in the ground without any other form of communication. That flag can be just as confusing and annoying to an excavator as that street-light is to you.

Our industry has standards that dictate symbols used in some common situations. To mark a corridor, a facility owner will commonly paint an “H” on the ground. This is a standard, acceptable form of communication — as long as the facility owner takes time to be sure that the excavator understands what it means. If the excavator doesn’t understand the symbol, it’s meaningless.

A facility owner has only partially marked a jobsite when he gets called away to do an emergency locate. He plans to return but does not notify the excavator. While he is gone, the excavator, seeing marks on the ground, assumes the area has been marked and makes the decision to begin working. At that moment, the excavator and the public are at risk.

And who is liable in case of damage? The excavator is liable because he didn’t check the status of the marking request and discover that the facility owner had not completed the job. Granted, the facility owner should have notified the excavator directly, but the responsibility in this case belongs to the person who damaged the utility.


In our industry, specific markings communicate the location of underground facilities. They’re designed to prevent excavators from damaging gas, electric, water and other utilities, and to be effective, they need to be correct and timely. Markings alone may not be sufficient in every situation; when they’re not, additional forms of communication must be provided. As an industry, we must help protect underground facilities, people and property by making sure our messages are clear, and that they are understood.

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