Power Tools in the Tolerance Zone: California’s Unique Solution to Improve Safety by Promoting Open Communication

When California’s 2016 Dig Safe Act closed loopholes on hand tool use requirements in the tolerance zone, unintended safety consequences followed. Excavators found themselves choosing between protecting their workers or complying with the law. But new safety regulations proposed by lawmakers and implemented by the Dig Safe Board, aim to change that by allowing certain powered tools to be used in the tolerance zone prior to locating underground facilities while creating a process that promotes open communication between excavators and facility owners.

Worker Safety and Infrastructure Safety at Odds?

Prior to 2016, California’s excavators had the option to use power tools to find the exact location of a facility, so long as they had permission from the facility owner. The passage of the Dig Safe Act both defined a hand tool and removed the option of obtaining operator permission to use anything else, preserving vacuum excavation as the only exception. The move came as an effort first to address a misconception in the field that handheld power tools, such as jackhammers, qualified as hand tools, and second to close a loophole for avoiding the safest possible option—hand tools. However, when lawmakers eliminated the power tool option, they unknowingly banned other useful tools and inadvertently put worker safety at risk.

It’s easy to assume that protecting California’s underground infrastructure by extension automatically protects worker safety. However, industry representatives from around the state quickly began to sound the alarm on worker safety issues arising due to the stronger restriction on power tools. Both excavators and operators reported that blunt-edged hand tools were ineffective in certain soil conditions, forcing them to turn to sharp tools, such as pickaxes or digging bars. The force required to proceed with these sharp tools endangered workers by making a facility puncture more likely and by required more bending, lifting, and twisting of the worker’s body. California found itself facing an unintended conflict between protecting the state’s underground infrastructure and protecting the health and safety of the state’s labor force.

“Sure, We Use Hand Tools” (Wink, Wink)

Following the new ban, many excavators and operators continued using the tools now considered illegal. Forced to choose between compliance and realities in the field, their power tool use went into hiding, along with any potential consequences. But hiding in the shadows is not good for safety. To remedy this issue, lawmakers passed a bill in 2018 to reopen the door on power tool use in the tolerance zone. This time though, the state’s new Dig Safe Board was in place, and the Legislature asked the Board to produce regulations implementing the change.

Just how common this particular violation of the law is became more clear as the Board worked to gather feedback to develop regulations on power tool use. At a public workshop in Sacramento, one company brought different examples of hand and power tools to show Board members and staff the challenge excavators face controlling where a hand tool lands near an underground facility when it is struck into the earth, versus what happens when a handheld power tool is used. The shiny new pickaxe had tags still attached, while several pneumatic clay spades were covered in dirt and dust. Meanwhile, feedback through a pair of online surveys produced by the Board further verified that excavators and operators were coming together to violate the current hand tool requirement. To address this issue, the Board engaged with the industry to identify tool options that address difficult soil conditions and worker fatigue and injury without increasing the risk to buried facilities. By bringing both sides of the industry together, the Board was able to define tool specifications that could be followed without also requiring permission from the facility owner.

Bridges Built by People, Not Tools

By shining light on the industry’s need for tools that are both effective and safe, the Board also began to see just how dysfunctional communication could be between excavators and operators in the field. Excavators voiced their frustrations with getting tied up in company phone trees and told the Board they are even forced to escalate issues in the field just to get a response from the facility owner. On the operator side, facility owners voiced concerns that the newly allowed powered tools may indicate situations where operators need to explain special field considerations to the excavator. Operators worried they might not have effective information to quickly reach an excavator who knows what is happening at the worksite. These concerns spoke directly to the Board’s experience that suppressing communication inhibited safety performance.

In response, the Board required both excavators and operators to provide current and effective contact information to each other via the One Call centers. Secondly, the Board designed a process to address situations where none of the approved tools will work to get the job done. Such scenarios have the potential to create pressure for excavators to forge ahead with heavier equipment, especially if they are unable to reach an operator to discuss the problem. For that reason, not only will excavators be required to reach out in such cases to the facility owner to determine a path forward, but the facility owner will also be required to respond to the excavator’s concerns within two working days. Should the excavator and operator agree that heavier tools are warranted and can be used safely, both will document their understanding in writing. By recognizing the impact both excavators and facility owners have on outcomes in the field, the Board’s regulations create a balanced process that promotes shared responsibility for safety.

Show Me the Data

With a process established and set to take effect July 1, 2020, the Board is looking ahead to the future. The biggest challenge to measuring the effectiveness of these regulations is the current lack of public information. Damage data has been largely collected and managed privately by each facility owner for their own business purposes. This makes it difficult for the Board to establish a baseline understanding of the risks posed by working with the various tools commonly used to expose underground facilities. Instead, the Board will rely on information collected through its investigations, damage reporting requirements, and feedback from its stakeholders to evaluate whether the process established in its regulations is working as intended.

California is the only state that has defined field conditions and tool specifications to a degree that allows an excavator to use a power tool in the tolerance zone prior to the positive location of an underground facility. The Board believes its solution will be successful in improving safety and working conditions across the state, and hopes processes like these that emphasize fairness, promote working relationships, and foster open communication can be a model for other safety regulators.

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