Sarah K. Magruder LylePicture this: Your company is scheduled to break ground on a big project. You notified the local one call center of your plans to dig a full five business days ago, but your excavating crew cannot put shovels in the ground because you’re still waiting for underground utilities to be located and marked on your job site. You’re concerned about incurring penalties on your contract for the project, knowing that with this delay it might not be completed on time. What do you do next?


Unfortunately, scenarios like this are all too familiar for many excavators, and data from the Common Ground Alliance (CGA) indicates that the damage prevention system has become overburdened due to inefficiencies in the process. CGA research also points to the fact that stakeholders’ confidence in the reliability of the system has decreased. And with damages to buried utilities on the rise for the past five years, according to the latest CGA Damage Information Reporting Tool (DIRT) Report, the damage prevention industry must consider how to reverse this trend.


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In recognizing a great need for innovative solutions and systemic change to drive the future of damage prevention, CGA launched the Next Practices Initiative in 2020. The initiative, guided by damage prevention leaders who serve on the Next Practices Advisory Committee, is setting out to restore confidence in the system for excavators – and all stakeholders. Using industry data, quantitative surveys and feedback from CGA members, the Next Practices Initiative will clearly identify, communicate and focus the industry on the most pressing issues that are causing the damage prevention system to be overburdened and lose its reliability, by focusing on three key mechanisms: improving existing CGA Best Practices; establishing new practices or programs; and looking at the effectiveness and applications of current or new technologies.

The Next Practices Initiative’s first call-to-action for industry stakeholders came in the form of the Initiative’s Report to the Industry, released in February 2021.


The three critical issues identified in the Report to the Industry are:



  1. Facilities not marked accurately or on time: Locating issues are a serious driver of damages to buried utilities, and a lack of confidence in timely and/or accurate locates can lead to the abandonment of the notification step altogether or over-notification by excavators, which ultimately increases pressure on locators.

  2. Excavator errors in the field: The omission of important safe excavation steps or Best Practices such as potholing, maintaining clearance and other errors is resulting in damages. Excavators frustrated with late and inaccurate locates may contribute to over-notification, or they may choose to dig before confirming utility response or after the life of a ticket to stay on schedule.

  3. Effective and consistent use of 811: Failure to notify remains the single largest contributor to damages, with other notification issues continuing to increase as well. The overall erosion of confidence in the damage prevention system is likely contributing to poor notification practices.


To steer the damage prevention industry toward new and comprehensive solutions that will address these challenges, the Next Practices Report to the Industry outlines four opportunities for systemic improvement with the most significant return on investment for the industry at large.


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The opportunities identified include:



  1. Increase implementation of electronic white-lining, which not only increases communication between the excavator and locator, but also helps reduce the scope of the locator’s work and provides them with better information about job sites, leading to timelier locates and restoring excavators’ confidence in the damage prevention system.

  2. Pursue an accessible and accurate GIS-based mapping system/database to help tackle the problem of abandoned lines, which are a persistent issue facing both locators and excavators, as they can take all the right steps and still cause a damage due to confusion between abandoned and live utility lines. An updated, accurate GIS-based mapping system/database would give locators better information to work from, thus driving more accurate and timelier locates and reducing the confusion between abandoned and live utility lines that both locators and excavators face.

  3. Utilize technology/software to account for variability in locate demand and likelihood of damages on certain projects to help locate companies plan accordingly to meet system demand, resulting in timelier locates and a more reliable system for excavators to depend on.

  4. Contractually incentivize adherence to CGA Best Practices that many excavators are not consistently in compliance with, as well as address incidents via effective enforcement mechanisms. Doing so will provide incentives for excavators to meet their obligations as partners in damage prevention by increasing safe excavation practices.


To read the full Next Practices Initiative Report to the Industry, visit www.commongroundalliance.com.



Sarah K. Magruder Lyle is president and CEO of the Common Ground Alliance (CGA).