What is the Value of an Accurate Locate?

Upper level managers in our industry realize that accurate locates are critical to the protection of their facilities, the crews working near the facilities, and public safety. I wonder if they also realize that locating is both a skill and an art that are not quickly learned. When ticket loads rise unexpectedly, you can’t just call a temp agency or run some help wanted ads to increase the number of locators to solve the problem. At the recent Underground Safety Summit held at the CGA 811 Excavation Safety Conference & Expo, the focus of the discussion was the “value of a locate.”

When you consider the cost of doing a locate, fixed costs include items like trucks, locate equipment, etc., but the only true variable costs are the locator, paint and flags. Downward pressure on what is paid per ticket for a locate translates to cost reductions. Unless locators are going to start riding bikes and using witching sticks, or taking shortcuts on the job, it seems this translates to low wages for the person doing the locate. It seems ironic that everyone agrees that doing an accurate locate is crucial to safety and that it is difficult to do, yet the consumers of locates frequently seem to be most concerned about the price of a locate, rather than the accuracy. Of course, this is a generalization, but I do think the points are valid.

Below are some observations from the Underground Safety Summit that highlight the difference in perspective for each stakeholder group on the value of a locate. Within the construct of shared responsibility, I think it is important for everyone to understand what motivates other stakeholder groups and to keep those differing perspectives top-of-mind while working towards our goal of zero damages.

– From a utility’s perspective when using a contract locator, the value is the protection of their facilities.

– From the client’s perspective when using a private locator, the value is finding all buried utilities in the area.

– From the private locator’s perspective, the value provided is using many different tools and the mindset of a detective to figure out the puzzle of a private locate where maps most likely don’t exist.

– From the contractor locator’s perspective, it is using maps and locators to mark and protect their client’s facilities. This is often done in an arena where there is little time to plan work (2-3 days’ notice) and fluctuating ticket loads that make it a balancing act between production and quality.

– From the contractor’s perspective, it is the start of the process toward a safe and efficient jobsite.

– From locators in the transmission gas and fiber industry, the value to their company is not only to mark the facility, but to protect it by working with the contractor to safely expose and protect their high consequence lines.

One of the key points that came out of the summit was the idea that quality technicians are not developed through a simple two-week class. It can take many months for a technician to gain the knowledge and confidence to be an effective employee. In fact, many companies agree it can take technicians nine months or more to be truly effective in their role.

Adding manpower to deal with rapid fluctuations upward in ticket volume does not address the need for those tickets to be accurate. As an industry, it behooves us to look at the job these technician’s are doing, acknowledge the skill it takes to do it right, and understand the value these professionals add to the safety of our communities every day.

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