Does Gold Shovel Standard Support “Shared Responsibility” in Damage Prevention?

It’s no secret that American infrastructure and the need to rebuild it is a hot topic these days.
What many don’t realize is that the bulk of most underground utility construction work is done by contractors who keep safety and damage  prevention front and center in all of their operations and construction activities. Damage prevention is a responsibility shared by several
stakeholders, but fundamental relationships between facility operators and the contractors who
work for them is paramount.

Unfortunately, the “Gold Shovel Standard” (GSS) threatens these effective partnerships by
shifting the focus of shared responsibility among all damage prevention stakeholders to a punitive approach of monitoring and scoring contractors based on number of hits without ensuring normalization of data and consideration of a range of important factors.

While being pitched as a certification and monitoring program intended to “dramatically reduce damages from excavation to buried asset networks” through increased cooperation
among operators, locators and excavators, most in the excavation construction community believe GSS will only create a new layer of training, reporting and information-sharing requirements for excavation contractors.

While GSS has taken a few initial steps to make the standard more viable, many important questions remain unanswered and key parts of the program remain incomplete.

In its initial promotional material, GSS stated “Call 811 Campaign effectiveness has leveled off and is producing fewer and fewer reductions in dig-ins by professional excavators,” and that “[e]xcavation companies know what to do, yet continue to be a leading cause of damage to buried gas, electric, telecom, sewer and water systems, despite good to very good Call-811 and
locate systems and established excavation procedures that prevent dig-ins when followed.”
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that excavation contractors take issue with this type of language, and several national groups have banded together as the GSS program continues to solicit participation to a range of underground facility operators across the country.

Under the GSS structure, facility operators join as “members” and the contractors who work for them are enrolled as “participants.” Participants agree to:

• Submit their training and testing material for approval and certification by GSS, train and re-train all employees annually, and preserve training records
• Report all damages to any facility within three business days
• Require GSS certification to all subcontractors working for them

Currently, the GSS program includes some 20-30 facility operator members and several hundred contractors (“participants”) who have had their training, testing, and procedures relating to damage prevention approved and certified by GSS. Members are able to view data about GSS participants and are encouraged to use this information for hiring and awarding business. GSS contractors receive an “EICO score” over time based solely on number of hits. Because data is currently being collected by GSS without a confirmed process about how EICO scores will be established and/or how they will impact the contractors that are submitting the data, players in the underground utility construction sector are increasingly voicing their concerns about the GSS program as currently written.

Contractors Stand Up and Speak Out
Organizations like the Distribution Contractors Association (DCA), many of whose members have been forced to participate in GSS as a condition of performing work for certain gas utilities, have communicated a range of concerns they have with the program, and other groups are beginning to do the same. In fact, a meeting was held in Washington, D.C. last fall where dozens of contractor representatives from DCA, the Power and Communication Contractors Association, the American Pipeline Contractors Association, the Associated General Contractors of America, and the National Utility Contractors Association met with the GSS administrator in frank discussion of the GSS program. Following that meeting, these groups developed a collective list of concerns for consideration by GSS leaders, along with a  blueprint” of suggested initial improvements to the program. Some of the remaining and critical concerns shared by many in the excavation community include:

Ambiguity of EI CO Scoring Process: There is a serious lack of information about the reasoning or logic behind the GSS EICO score, despite the fact that a contractor’s score has the potential to impact future business with a range of facility operators. The EICO score is based entirely on number of facility hits without consideration of number of employees and/or workers that work for the contractor, number of projects performed by the contractor, location
of work, or other important factors. A process to normalize this data has yet to be established.
Lack of Consideration of Root Cause: Thorough investigation and determination of root cause is needed following most underground facility damages. Root cause is not only over-looked, but almost entirely neglected in the current GSS process. In situations where excava-tion damage is the result of an unmarked or mismarked facility, the root cause is not  considered, yet the contractor’s EICO score would be negatively impacted.
“Review Committee”: GSS contends that contractors are allowed to dispute a facility hit when submitting information about an incident if they followed their certified policies and procedures, and a “review committee” made up primarily of practicing excavators will determine if all certified procedures were followed. However, there is currently no information about who will serve on this committee, their certifications, length of term, etc. Additionally, because this data is submitted exclusively by contractors, many believe GSS is not prepared for the overwhelming number of disputed hits coming their way.
Certification of Subcontractors: Facility hits by subcontractors can unfairly impact the
EICO score of general contractors. Subcontractors regularly perform work in multiple locations
where the general contractor is not present. It is unrealistic for them to be responsible for
factors surrounding EICO scores of subcontractors.
Exempt Facilities: The GSS describes “benefits” to gas and electric utilities, pipelines, telecom, water/sewer, excavators and even municipalities, when many of the operators of these
facilities (especially municipalities) are often exempt from state One Call requirements. How
are contractors expected to be responsible for stakeholders who do not participate in the damage prevention process?

To be fair, the GSS administrator has been accessible and has willingly spoken to any and all contractors interested in talking with him. However, the “improvements” agreed to by GSS
authorities to date are very limited.

GSS Offers Temporary “Opt-Out” of Reporting
To their credit, they have agreed to slow the scoring process of the program and have provided
a temporary “opt-out” provision so that contractors don’t have to report data to GSS until several
important questions are addressed. Specifically, GSS provides that the “program is undergoing
a thorough review of reporting, data confidentiality, and workflow of reported incidents
as part of the Phase 2 rollout of the program. As such, participants can temporarily opt-out of
sharing damage information with Gold Shovel Standard.” However, participants are expected
to maintain an internal process to collect this data for possible submission in the GSS database
at a later date. Since then, dozens of contractors have taken GSS up on their offer to opt-out of
reporting until improvements have been made.

Additionally, GSS cleaned up the inflammatory language on the GSS website regarding
contractors and the effectiveness of 811. GSS directors are also hosting a series of meetings
with contractors around the country. In February, meetings were held at PG&E facilities in San
Ramon, California, and at the Carolinas AGC offices in Charlotte, North Carolina. Two more
of these small venues are expected later this year.

GSS is also in the process of establishing a committee that will focus on locators. However, a committee on locating will only be productive if GSS operators actively participate as  stake-holders with “skin in the game.” After all, operators hold the responsibility to provide accurate
and timely locating of their facilities, whether performed by contract or “in-house” personnel.
Other significant concerns remain. Requirements to ensure GSS certification of subcontractors
have been partially alleviated but not fully eliminated. Therefore, while excavators have expressed appreciation for the marginal steps made to date, nothing substantial has changed within the program to achieve the “buy-in” by excavation contractors GSS leaders claim they need.

GSS “Participants Conference” Held in Orlando
On March 13th, GSS held a Participants Conference just prior to the CGA 811 Excavation Safety
Conference & Expo in Orlando, Florida. Dozens of contractor representatives from DCA, PCCA,
APCA, AGC, Nulca and NUCA were registered to attend. The venue was set up as a three-hour
discussion of these concerns with numerous members of the GSS board of directors.

Contractors hope that these discussions, whether with small groups of contractors and a GSS director, or at a larger venue such as the Participants Conference, will help GSS operators
understand the contractor perspective and even rethink the wisdom of such a one-sided approach to damage prevention.

Where is the “Shared Responsibility”?
Excavation contractors work tirelessly to perform superior work while providing a safe and effective work environment. Damage prevention is, and always has been, a big part of that. While the goal of increased safety is fundamental, many contractors currently participating in the GSS program believe in a more collaborative approach such as developing and promoting best practices and shared responsibility in damage prevention as advocated by the Common
Ground Alliance (CGA). As currently written, the GSS will only hurt contractors who work in good faith to prevent damages to underground facilities.

There is a range of unintended consequences to consider as well. State and federal government
entities will likely take the shortsighted approach of mandating GSS requirements in new or adjusted regulations and, in the end, the increased paperwork and repetitive reporting require-ments will unnecessarily result in higher cost of doing business for both contractors and operators. In its current form, concerns have been raised that GSS reporting requirements could interfere with attorney-client privilege following certain disputed hits.

The fundamental responsibilities of damage prevention are well known to regular readers of Damage Prevention Professional. All facility operators need to participate in the One Call pro-cess with regard to both notification and One Call membership. Accurate and timely locating of facilities needs to be ensured, and excavators need to follow critical practices such as potholing.

With all this in mind, many contractors have effective relationships with their customers where
both parties discuss the circumstances surrounding facility damages, including financial compensation depending on root cause and other factors. The one-sided approach of GSS will make these proactive relationships difficult to maintain and will likely encourage unnecessary litigation. In fact, while GSS is being sold as a “voluntary” program, excavators participating in these discussions believe the program will result in a “blacklist” of contractors who experience several facility hits without regard to root cause or other important factors.

The CGA’s Best Practices Committee established a task team to evaluate whether GSS aligns
with the CGA Best Practices. While the full committee had not fully discussed the work of the task team when this article was written, most on the task team agreed that the GSS approach did not align with CGA Best Practices and that CGA should take no further action or position on the program.

Excavation contractors widely support shared responsibility in damage prevention and the many best practices encouraged by the CGA. The GSS approach undermines the spirit of co-operation the CGA was established on 16 years ago, and many CGA stakeholders, representing both excavators and facility operators, hope GSS leaders will reevaluate the need for this program and return to a cooperative approach to damage prevention.

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