The Damage Prevention Education Experience: Changing the Paradigm for Excavation Safety Education

Site plans ? Check. Contracts with subs? Check. One Call notification? Check. Adequate
training and safety education for employees? Uhhhhhhhh……

In 2011, the Missouri Common Ground Alliance (MO CGA) identified the overwhelming need for damage prevention education and excavation safety training to help the state meet the organization’s mission of using best practices for damage prevention and public safety. The need permeated a diverse number of industries across the stakeholder spectrum and spanned outside the traditional damage prevention audience of professional contractors and utilities. Recognizing that, the MO CGA set out on a mission to radically alter the perception and status quo of typical education and training opportunities to a more worker-focused and impactful event experience that would change the lives of those who attend.
In planning the first Damage Prevention & Excavation Safety Summit, the  MO CGA admittedly underestimated the level of interest that stakeholders would have. The expectation was that 300 or so people would register for the inaugural event and the event would gradually grow as the years progressed. Fortunately for damage prevention, the initial projection of 300 people was unexpectedly low, with more than 1,000 people attending the two-day event. In the post-event debrief, the volunteers of the MO CGA
realized just how impactful this type of training could be and committed to recreating the success of the first event every year thereafter.

Fast forward through the seventh year of hosting the Summit, and the MO CGA saw consistent and significant increases in attendance, vendors, revenue, and volunteers. From 1,012 attendees in 2011 to 1,700 in 2017, it was glaringly evident that the MO CGA had filled a training void that few knew existed. Vendors of all types flocked to the event to showcase their products and services, with revenue growing 285% over the seven-year period. In 2017 alone, people from 623 companies in 21 different states took advantage of the opportunity, with the MO CGA offering $425,000 in completely FREE training to attendees. Employees who had never heard the damage prevention message were now introduced to safe excavation practices because of the Summit, and volunteers increasingly sought to become involved in the MO CGA’s mission and purpose. By all accounts, the
Summit did precisely what it was designed to do, and much more.

The design of the Summit is carefully and methodically planned each year. Every detail is meticulously managed by the MO CGA volunteers. With the leadership team providing the vision, volunteers from various backgrounds and skillsets rally behind a worthwhile purpose, enhancing their professional networks in the process. The planning committee engages regularly in putting together the massive number of moving pieces into a structured, cohesive event that creates a one of a kind experience for attendees. The logic was that by creating the “experience,” attendees would process the information differently and would, in turn, implement the concepts they learn through the hands-on and  unconventional approach offered by the MO CGA. Rather than your standard conference structure, the MO CGA seeks to bring dramatic, realistic, in-your-face training and events to those who least expect it. And the MO CGA does it for FREE.

The Buried Alive Live Trench Rescue reenactment quickly become the flagship of the Summit experience.

Traditionally, conferences require attendees to pay registration fees that help underwrite the cost of producing the event. Meeting space, food and beverage, printing, and other outlays are rarely inexpensive. But the MO CGA recognized that the very people who needed the training the most were the ones who could seldom afford it. Core classes offered by the MO CGA like OSHA 10, Excavation Competent Person, Supervisor Accountability and a host of others, are often extraordinarily expensive for companies
to send their employees to. In fact, many companies fail to send their employees to relevant and life-saving training because budgets are simply too constrained. This results in increased accidents, injuries, and fatalities that are preventable with adequate instruction. Recognizing this, the MO CGA turned the conventional conference structure mindset on its head.

Rather than ask attendees to underwrite the cost of training, what if vendors who had a vested interest in engaging with attendees could support the event through sponsorships? Additionally, what other resources were available to help educate people about damage prevention and safe work practices for attendees. The MO CGA’s answer to funding was to work diligently to solicit vendors who had relevant products/services for attendees.
Equipment suppliers, locator manufacturers, utility companies, pipelines, and a host of other vendors eagerly stepped up, and more than 100,000 square feet of space is sold out each year with a wait list of vendors anxious to reach attendees. The MO CGA also identified that other resources were available to help augment the escalating costs of producing an event of the Summit’s magnitude. Through a State Damage Prevention Grant made possible by PHMSA, one-third of the costs are offset as a means to expand the damage prevention message. What better way to use grants than to help deliver on one of PHMSA’s key objectives to educate people on safe excavation practices? With annual costs ranging from $130,000 to $180,000, having grant support ensures long-term sustainability for what many have turned to as the main source for their  ducation/training needs.

Reaching that point of trust for thousands of companies throughout Missouri and beyond didn’t happen by accident. In addition to the training being relevant and offered by highly respected industry instructors, the MO CGA had to find a way to connect with attendees in a very real and very personal way. Making the courses hit home to change the mindsets
of attendees was both necessary and effective. Although every class offered sought to meet that objective, the MO CGA found that recreating realistic job site situations was the key to getting past the tough exterior façade of the majority of attendees. Enter the Trench Rescue reenactment.

The Buried Alive Live Trench Rescue reenactment quickly became the flagship of the Summit experience. Never before had an organization dug a trench, thrown mannequins in it, and coordinated a highly technical rescue response for a live audience. This event was demonstrative of the “outside the box” mentality of the MO CGA and reflective of the type of training that truly does cause attendees to do a complete 180 in their approach to safety. Narrated by the commanding officer of the regional technical rescue team, the MO CGA threw significant assets and resources at the marquee class. Fire trucks, ambulances, medical helicopters, law enforcement, OSHA officers, medical examiners, and a host of other organizations pull together every year to produce a deeply compelling and moving
depiction of what occurs when workers take short cuts and ignore proper excavation procedures. The MO CGA hires actors to pose as the foreman responsible for the trench collapse, the wife of the simulated deceased victim, and the children of the individual buried alive. Pyrotechnics are also utilized to demonstrate the additional hazards frequently present in these situations and to add an additional element of reality for attendees. The conclusion of the course is dramatized by a body bag loaded into a hearse
while the wife and children are left to deal with the consequences and pick up the pieces of their new reality. And, the impact on attendees is palpable. Deafening silence fills the 2,000 seat arena as attendees reflect on how the decisions that they have made or will make affect not only themselves, but those closest to them as well. As a result, 98% of Summit attendees say they will change their work practices because of attending. That 98% number is what drives the MO CGA to continue the mission.

Fortunately for damage prevention and excavation safety, new attendees fill the seats of the classrooms year after year. With an average new attendee rate of 49.83%, companies from around the nation take advantage of the opportunity and send new employees as a result of their experience at the event. The Damage Prevention & Excavation Safety Summit has attracted a loyal following because of its renowned reputation for quality
training using a fun and insightful format. Registration ends early each year due to more demand than capacity, and survey results are remarkably positive each year. Fortunately, this makes marketing the event relatively simple. Stakeholder associations eagerly partner with the MO CGA to help promote the event to members, word of mouth advertising drives significant interest, and yearly promotional videos combine with both to collectively broaden the reach of the increasingly popular and always memorable experience.

In the end, the MO CGA can’t quantifiably measure how many incidents were avoided or how many lives were saved as a result of the innumerable contributions of our volunteers. Countless attendees relate their stories about completely changing their philosophies and approaches to doing their jobs. That may mean they now use a trench box where they didn’t before or they now excavate safer around buried utilities because they’ve seen the risk isn’t as important as the acknowledgment and fundamental understanding that the safe way is the right way.

Recognizing ALL risks and taking action to eliminate it in the name of safety and damage prevention is the overriding goal of the Summit. Through our committed group of  volunteers, vendors, and partners, that’s precisely what the MO CGA has been able to do.

Derek S. Leffert is Executive Director/CEO for Missouri Common Ground Alliance. For more information on the Missouri Common Ground Alliance, please visit

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