Safe Digging Month: Safe Excavation Practices & Utility Locating

Safe Digging Month: Safe Excavation Practices & Utility Locating

Three excavators working on a construction site.
60% of excavation damages reported in 2021 were caused by professional excavators who had not requested a locate by contacting 811.

While 811 call centers reported an 8% uptick in location requests for public utilities, a full 60% of excavation damages reported to the Common Ground Alliance as part of the 2021 DIRT Report were caused by professional excavators who had not requested a locate through 811. 

In fact, “No locate request” remains the #1 cause of utility strike and excavation damage, even though 36% of those professional excavators were “likely working on projects associated with utilities.” 

The $30-60 Billion Problem 

The total cost of underground utility damage is staggering. According to Common Ground Alliance CEO, Sarah Magruder Lyle, “Underground utility damages have an estimated societal cost of $30 billion each year.” 

While the CGA puts the annual cost of subsurface utility damage at $30 billion, an updated 2020 report commissioned in part by the National Utility Contractors Association as part of the Infrastructure Protection Coalition puts the cost at over $61 billion annually, more than double CGA’s number. The IPC’s figure includes “waste, inefficiency, and excess cost embedded in the system,” as reported by British geospatial publication “Between the Poles” in 2021. 

Whether the cost is $30 billion or $61 billion, the cause remains the same: 

Contractors who dig before they have located underground utilities on site. 

“No locate request stands alone as its own root cause group [in the DIRT Report] and has consistently been the single leading root cause [of utility strikes] each year.” 

“…it is imperative that we begin to better understand and address the reasons that 811-aware excavators do not always notify.” 2021 DIRT Report. 

The Professional Cost of a Strike & How to Stop Them 

Considering that striking a utility after failing to contact 811, or digging on an expired ticket (over 21 days old) can cause a contractor to lose their license, it’s important to understand why 60% of professional excavators continue to drop the ball. 

Figuring out the why, and raising awareness of excavation best practices are why the DIRT Report, and National Safe Digging Month exist. And GPRS works to keep everyone safe by locating and mapping subsurface utilities – both public and private – before you dig. As GPRS’ own Dave Mulcahey and Christian Wagenhauser shared with WTOL’s Paul Kwapich in a recent interview, “It’s a lot more dangerous and a lot more expensive to not locate, to not call 811 or a private utility locator, than it is to call us or call 811 and get your site mapped out.” 

“In the last 20 years, there have been over 1,400 injuries and over 200 deaths associated with utility strikes,” adds Mulcahey. So, locating utilities prior to digging literally saves lives. 

That’s because the most dangerous lines to hit – natural gas pipes – are struck most often, with 81,000 natural gas utility strikes reported in 2021. Telecom lines are the second most common, with 75,000 annual strikes. 

114,954 Utility Strikes in 2021 Were Caused by Contractors or Developers 

Of those 114,954 strikes, 57% cite failure to maintain clearance or to pothole as the cause, meaning either they weren’t 100% sure where they were digging was clear, or did not pothole first to ascertain the exact location of the utility if they were not sure. 

That’s why, even if contractors do call 811, it may not be enough. Because 811 only locates public utilities, like those found in the middle of roads or on public property, and more than 60% of utilities on any site are classified as private, which 811 does not locate. CGA’s Excavator White Paper reports that, “excavators have limited knowledge about regulations beyond the need to notify before beginning work.” Further, that “showing that concepts such as potholing, needing to maintain marks or request re-marks, and other critical but lesser-emphasized excavation Best Practices do not have the same level of awareness and compliance as making the notification.” 

And a full 66% of utility strikes occurred because the excavation occurred with an “invalid use of request,” causing the contractor to either dig before their valid 811-compliant start time (before they had clearance) or after their valid 811 ticket had expired and the location of the utilities was no longer verified. 

According to the CGA, this category is particularly troubling because it “highlights a lack of understanding of the entire spectrum of regulations and requirements governing the use of 811, including advance notice requirements, wait time, expiration date, etc.” 

Which makes it even more imperative to hire a professional utility locator to properly mark and accurately locate utilities before digging, to take some of the institutional knowledge load off the excavator. 

Hiring the most accurate and knowledgeable professional utility locators matters because inaccurate locates also pose a tremendous risk of utility strikes, with some 89% of utility locating errors caused by locator error, incorrect, missing, or incomplete markings, or out-of-date as-built data. 

Locating Practices Root Causes
89% of locate errors resulted from locator error, incorrect, missing, or incomplete markings, or out-of-date as-built data.

Frankly, those types of statistics are why GPRS felt the need to Widen the Gap between ourselves and our competitors. It is why we require every Project Manager to be certified in the most stringent non-destructive subsurface testing protocols available – The Subsurface Investigation Method – or SIM. 

Subsurface Investigation Methodology
GPRS Project Manager's are all SIM certified

Unlike most utility locating companies, GPRS Project Managers spend a total of 80 classroom hours and 320 hours in the field to achieve SIM certification, making them the most highly trained, professional utility locators in the United States. SIM education and training has led GPRS to exceed 99.8% accuracy in subsurface utility locating and concrete imaging on more than 350,000 jobs nationwide. 

Call 811 to locate public utilities before you dig. It’s the law. 

Call GPRS if you want to be 99.8% sure it’s clear when you dig.