Lucky AND Good: Being a Locator in the Modern Dangerous Era

Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”… and be sure to mark your lines appropriately while maintaining situational awareness every step of the way.

With apologies to Ralph Waldo Emerson for amending his fantastic advice, it is fitting to picture a beautiful stretch of trees adjoining a neighborhood, the sounds of children playing and dogs barking, bees buzzing and sunlight beaming down. And all this serenity occurs in three dimensions around our hero: the underground utility locator technician.
In the modern era during dig season, on any given day, the typical locator will:

• drive 4.5 hours
• work beyond a 9 hour shift for many days in a row
• face off against at least one animal capable of severely injuring him
• be physically struck by 90 degree heat, then rain, then wind, maybe hail
• speak to 5 excavator contractors, at least 2 of whom want attention simultaneously
• witness 25 distracted drivers, at least one of whom will get uncomfortably close (or even contact) his work zone
• walk 6 miles across uncontrolled, general public, not-quite-a-path terrain
• protect infrastructure, communities, and themselves from infinite harmful possibilities.

With all the odds stacked squarely against each underground utility locate technician, there are still plenty of reasons for hope that these amazing workers will be safe and healthy for their loved one , every day. Locators develop a keen sixth sense of their environment by instilling hazard recognition habits. They give and receive feedback about their
driving behaviors. There are engineered defenses embedded in their ticket management systems for routing and prioritization. Time Out Authority (aka Stop Work Authority) is an empowerment of each locator to create a pause in their work tasks to reset the risk when hazards change. And here is this author’s favorite reason for hope: every locator is an observer who occasionally becomes a safety super star in their very own daily movie – whenever they
take a few moments to share the Close Calls they experience via their organization’s safety management system.

Here’s an example from the library of 10,000+ submissions to USIC’s Close Calls and Safety Observations in the last two years:

Locator in Charlotte NC: “I was locating front of building. Pulled vehicle around to front of parking lot, to get some light from my truck headlights to take pictures. Decided to pull in parking space even though dealership was closed. Soon as I parked the truck in the parking space, before I got out of the truck, a flying car literally went airborne over the hood of my truck right where I was going to park. It hit the light pole in front of me and knocked it out of the ground. The car immediately caught fire. I called police and fire as I ran with my extinguisher and tried to put out fire but it didn’t help. Grabbed lumber that was out on a trailer to see if I could pry open door to get him out. Other cars began to pull over and help me and we got him out before police and fire arrived. Car was still on fire when the fire trucks arrived and he would have been burned up by then.”

Not all Close Calls are quite so dramatic, yet they remain incredibly important to building up the organizational
situational awareness of hazards in our general public: “Keeping my head down to mark a line and glancing up enough to see my walking path I ran into a small low hanging tree limb. Couldn’t see it because of the bill of my cap. No harm done, just pushed my cap sideways. Line of sight has to include everything. Even things above our head. Be aware of surroundings and check the path for possible overhead obstructions as well walking path.”

Ever since we humans began drawing on cave walls and telling tales around fire pits, the importance of stories to share history, to warn against danger, to predict the future, has never been more valuable than in the modern
dangerous era. Stories from locators, about locators, doing locating work are an incredibly effective tool to prepare these safety superstars for their next damage prevention effort. If your organization doesn’t yet have a system for submitting, sharing, analyzing, and incorporating stories of Close Calls and Safety Observations into every single task, shift, and business unit, then we recommend building it.

By encouraging, recognizing, and rewarding locator engagement through story telling with one another in business
units, we observed 30-60% injury rate reductions in subsequent months after the system was introduced.

Share a story – save a life – protect infrastructure – protect our communities!

Tom Karnowski is Vice President Environment, Health, and Safety for USIC LLC. He is a passionate field services professional, serving in operational and safety roles for over 16 years. He can be reached at 813.842.5462 and

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