Testing Limits

CHRISTOPHER KOCH

“You don’t have to look far to find evidence of people’s willingness to test their limits, often with disastrous consequences. A quick search on YouTube can lead you down a rabbit hole of calamity. There are fail videos of people diving off rooftops, skate-boarding down stairs, mountain biking into ravines, doing handstands on superbikes, and more. Sadly, you also don’t have to look far to find stories of amateur yachtsmen or pilots whose miscalculations of their skills or the capabilities of their craft have ended in tragedy.

As laypeople, we can stand back, shake our heads, and marvel at how they ever thought they were going to pull it off. We recognize our limits, the limits of our equipment, and the limits placed on us by our environments.

If that’s the case though, if it’s just that easy to recognize limits, why do so many utility operators and excavators continue to assume that the resources of locating companies and their technicians are limitless? Why do we assume that locating companies can process unlimited locate requests in 48-72 hours? Why do they continue to assume that anything, anywhere, anytime must be locatable by electromagnetic induction? (For that matter, why do utility operators continue to assume that bore operators can thread the needle through any environment regardless of congestion?)

While it is true that most locating is routine, and also true that most locates can be performed by novice technicians (provided they have received some basic training), it is not true that all locating problems can be overcome by more skill or more experience. As I’m fond of saying during training, “sometimes, the damn thing is just broken.” There are some locates that are difficult and some that are simply impossible because of the practical limits of manpower and physics.

As leaders in the damage prevention industry, we marvel at the foolishness of piloting a boat or aircraft into dangerous conditions, but routinely expect locate technicians to simply navigate through the storm. And if they miraculously appear unscathed on the other side of the clouds, we send a bore operator in after them.

We wouldn’t shame a motorcyclist, or a yachtsman, or a pilot for knowing the limits of their equipment or being reluctant to use it in a perilous environment, nor would we encourage them to routinely test those limits. Unfortunately, however, as rights-of-way grow more and more crowded and utility customers become ever more demanding, both locating companies and excavators are not only expected to routinely test their limits, they’re rewarded for doing it.

With more than two decades of experience in locating, I’ve come to recognize my own limits and I’m not shy about sharing them, particularly in the interest of safety. I routinely warn excavators when I believe they’re pushing those limits and, for the most part, I think they’re glad for the knowledge.

Safe excavation and effective damage prevention require more utility operators willing to recognize the limits and to proactively approach their job with safety in mind, both through SUE and by encouraging their locating and excavation contractors to fly around storms rather than into them.


Christopher Koch is the author of “Welcome to Metropolis: Riding Solo into the Heart of America,” now available on Amazon and Audible. He is also a training consultant and President of ZoneOne Locating. Christopher is past president of Nulca and worked on both the 2009 and 2015 revisions to the Nulca Professional Competency Standard. He can be reached by email at Christopherkoch@live.com or on Twitter @kochauthor.

THE OPINIONS EXPRESSED IN THIS ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR. DAMAGE PREVENTION PROFESSIONAL WELCOMES AND ENCOURAGES ARTICLES AND CORRESPONDENCE FROM ALL POINTS OF VIEW.

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