Preventing Electric Utility Damage

What is the best way to prevent damage to underground utilities? If we could answer that question, there would be no need for the Damage Prevention industry. What we do know is that damages happen for a number of reasons. The main drivers for damages are usually excavators hitting accurately marked lines, failure to call for locates and a locator’s failure to mark the facilities… but there could also be mapping discrepancies and toning issues. The key is to identify what the common factors are when a damage occurs so that the next damage can be prevented. Because damage prevention is a shared responsibility, all these items need to be considered when developing a damage prevention program.

In Preventing Electric Utility Damages, we explore the best practices to prevent damage to all electric facilities, both overhead and underground. We discuss how we educate excavators on working safely around our utility, what to look for in the field before excavation begins, who to call when your jobsite locates appear incomplete and what to do if you do hit a line.

Completing a timely and fact-based investigation of the damage is crucial in determining what happens next. The investigation should include the basics such as who hit it, how they hit it and why they hit it. Once these factors are determined, you can designate fault and/or causal factors for the event. When looking at the causal factors, you begin to build a pattern with both the excavators themselves as well as the type of work they are performing. We also see common factors with regard to locate errors. Putting that information together can help to identify where the next damage might occur.

A starting point is to educate companies that excavate around the facilities. It’s important that the excavator understands there is more than calling in for the dig ticket. We start with discussing the six best practices for excavation followed by safety opportunities such as checking that the ticket information is accurate, checking to ensure the member companies have responded and marked or cleared, ensuring private facilities are marked and, of course, respecting the marks on the ground. Also, excavation practices matter! Increasing your tolerance zone, potholing at regular intervals and never blindly crossing a facility are good exercises in preventing utility damage. Most importantly, the excavator should never assume anything on the job site. The marks should be clear and easy to understand, and the excavator should always document the jobsite with photos or videos before excavation begins so that in the event of a damage, they have the proper documentation to defend the case.

Regular field visits and audits with the excavators help to ensure compliance of safe digging practices and help to provide a point of contact for the excavator. Preventing Electric Utility Damage also discusses what happens once you hit an electric line and how to keep yourself and others safe.

It’s important that the utility locator also understand their responsibilities and expectations. They should respond to the ticket on time, clearly paint and flag the approximate location of the facilities, get help when needed and most importantly, they must communicate with the excavator whenever possible. It’s critical that there are open lines of communication with the excavator and the locator. Joint meets, while not used much anymore, are beneficial in meeting locate representatives with all the member companies so that they are sure where and when the work will be performed. Developing these essential relationships and working hand-in-hand prevents the locator from having to mark areas that won’t be excavated and the excavator from digging in areas that have not been located.

Regular field visits and audits with the locators help to ensure completeness and accuracy of marks and compliance of marking standards and safety expectations.

In order to prevent damages, it’s imperative that a database is set up to collect, retain and analyze the common factors involved with damages to utilities. Data collection should be easy to collect, maintain and query so that you are able to drill down to the most common causes. Pinpointing excavator causal factors such as marked within tolerance, no locate request, failure to call for refresh or jumping the dig start gives you an opportunity to discuss with the excavator how they can improve their safety performance by potholing by hand, calling 811 before excavation, calling in regularly for refreshed marks and waiting the required amount of time before digging. Also, collecting how they are hitting the utility is helpful. You should be more concerned with an excavator who always hits lines with a backhoe as opposed to an excavator nicking the line with a shovel.

Working with your state’s One Call can provide timely and significant information as to who is digging around the facilities, when that work will take place and why. Getting ahead of the project can contribute to the success or failure of the project. If the engineer and excavator are aware of existing facilities at the time of design, the project is less likely to encounter surprises. There’s nothing worse than trying to install a turn lane and finding out there is an electric duct package right where you need to work. Surprises like this can add time and unforeseen costs to the project. Having the best and most up-to-date information from the utilities and municipalities before the work begins can help reduce delay and help keep the project budget on track. Once you identify who the worst offenders or heavy hitters are, you can discuss with them what can be done to assist in keeping them safe on the job site. There are many companies that call in tens of thousands of locate requests every year and hardly ever have a damage. Conversely, there are some companies that call in hardly any tickets and have more than their share of damages. Meeting with all parties involved can help reduce those damages.

While there are many opportunities for damage prevention, we’ll show how these methods have shown to be successful. These best practices are told from the utility standpoint but are easily implemented within any company to help reduce damages. Nobody wakes up in the morning and decides they are going to damage someone else’s equipment. Considering the life and death consequences of hitting a gas or electric line, who would? Preventing Electric Utility Damage helps to sort out what some of the best practices are, how your Damage Prevention team can work to keep everyone safe on the jobsite and how to ultimately reduce damage to utilities and get everyone home safe at the end of the day.


Kelley Heinz is the Damage Prevention Manager with ComEd. She will be presenting on this topic at the 2020 CGA 811 Excavation Safety Conference & Expo in Palm Springs March 24-26.

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