For the last 14 years, the Common Ground Alliance (CGA) has recognized April as National Safe Digging Month (NSDM) in an initiative designed to elevate the awareness of the need to prevent excavation-related damages to underground utilities at a time just before peak digging season.
With more than 385,000 damages reported in 2020 alone, and new federal legislation promising increased investments in U.S. infrastructure, this year CGA is highlighting the importance of industry collaboration to address the key challenges causing these damages to critical infrastructure.
According to the CGA’s most recent Damage Information Reporting Tool (DIRT) Report, the annual estimated societal cost of excavation-related damages to underground utilities has reached a staggering $30 billion. This factors in not only the cost of repairs to the damaged facility — such as materials and labor costs — but also indirect costs including business closures, medical bills, traffic delays, air pollution and other environmental consequences, and more.
In fact, a 2021 report published by the Infrastructure Protection Coalition is estimating costs to be closer to $61 billion, contributed in part by inefficiencies in the 811 process causing excess costs and public safety risk. With the new bipartisan infrastructure law projected to drive significant investment in rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure, now is a critical time for the damage prevention industry to address these prevailing challenges in the call-before-you-dig process that contribute to hundreds of thousands of damages each year.
As identified in CGA’s 2020 DIRT Report, the top five damage root causes made up almost 70 percent of all damages reported — this means that targeting this handful of issues could result in a dramatic reduction in annual damages. Failure to notify 811 remains the single largest cause of damages, contributing to 32 percent of all reported damages, followed by failure to pothole and/or maintain clearance, and facilities not marked or marked inaccurately due to locator error or the presence of an abandoned facility.
Damage prevention programs must address these key root causes to make significant changes to the system and drive damages down. Implementing the recommendations found in the annual DIRT Report is an excellent way to target these persistent challenges — some top recommendations from the 2020 Report include:
- Capture more granular data on reasons for not notifying 811.
- Explore common data collection, reporting processes and metrics for documenting and tracking late locates through the one call centers.
- Consider how damage prevention efforts address the leading individual root causes.
- Address damages due to “Marks faded, lost, or not maintained” that occur early in a project.
CGA’s Next Practices Initiative, founded in 2020, is also working to encourage innovation and new practices by identifying the most critical damage prevention challenges using industry data, quantitative surveys and stakeholder input. The Next Practices Initiative most recently published its Pathways to Improving U.S. Damage Prevention Status Report that identifies four systemic improvements with the highest potential return on investment:
- Contractually incentivize adherence to Best Practices.
- Pursue an accurate, accessible GIS-based mapping system/database.
- Increase effective implementation of electronic white-lining.
- Utilize technology/software to account for variability in demand.
The Next Practices Initiative is actively documenting successful case studies of these practices currently being implemented around the country. We look forward to sharing an annual Next Practices report later this year that will highlight early implementation of innovative successes and communicate these successes to the broader industry.
Preventing damages to the buried utilities that we all rely on is a shared responsibility among all stakeholder groups, so it is critical that we work collaboratively to reduce damages and lower the societal cost. In addition to the implementation of key practices and recommendations, National Safe Digging Month is an excellent time to increase awareness of safe excavation practices within your organization and your community before the digging season ramps up over the summer. NSDM also marks the 2022 CGA Conference & Expo, that took place April 4-8 in Anaheim, California. Damage prevention professionals from around the country gathered to collaborate on solving the prevalent challenges affecting the industry.
Sarah K. Magruder Lyle is the president and CEO of the Common Ground Alliance.