NUCA Breaks Down the Gold Shovel Standard

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What Is the Gold Shovel Standard? According to the creators of the Gold Shovel Standard (GSS), it is a first-of-its-kind program supported by technology, which is directly targeted at excavation companies to rate how carefully or carelessly a company excavates around buried utilities.

They claim that by rating excavation contractors, they will be able to rate each excavator based on how safely they perform when digging around underground utilities and how many utility hits are made by a company. The GSS Excavation Incident Calculated Occurrence (EICO) score will be used by utility stakeholder members of the GSS to reward companies with high ratings by providing them the opportunity to secure work. Poor performers — companies with lower EICO scores — will not get the same opportunity for work and, therefore, will be encouraged to improve their rating.

According to the GSS, the EICO score, based on an algorithm that has yet to be created, will take into account the number of utility hits that have occurred. The algorithm will normalize data such as work volume, type and location, as well as consider company size. For example, how will the EICO score be calculated to take all these factors into consideration and compare a large company to a medium or small one? What about the scores for companies working in big cities vs. suburban or rural areas?

The GSS was created by a large gas utility in California and is now being promoted by 20 to 30 other gas and electric utilities and other facility operators. The standard is not based on any legislative action, government rules or regulations or even a consensus standard. As far as we know, contractors and other stakeholders including locators had no involvement in its creation and neither did the Common Ground Alliance (CGA).

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As members of the GSS organization, the utilities involved have and will continue to develop the standard and require excavators to sign up and be rated if they want to work for infrastructure owners, even though they state in their GSS promotions that participation is voluntary. GSS members are infrastructure owners. Contractors, on the other hand, will join as participants and will not have a vote in the organization. However, they will be required to pay participant dues of $900 to $2,400 per year, depending on the size of their company. In addition, infrastructure owners will pay $1,000 per year for membership.

The concept of lowering the number of underground damages is commendable and NUCA totally supports that, as evidenced by the association’s continuous membership and involvement in the CGA since its beginning. At that time, all the stakeholders agreed to form an alliance and work together to create the Common Ground Best Practices, which has significantly reduced the number of utility damages. The creators of the GSS appear not to be satisfied with the alliance and believe they can do better by requiring companies to join the organization and be scored under its still-to-be-seen rating system and algorithm.

Requirements

To participate in the GSS program, contractors must submit a very specific agreement and join the organization. To be Gold Shovel Certified, a company must have and implement policies and procedures that include the following:

  1. Annual awareness training for all workers, including new hires for all excavation jobs including sites that don’t require GSS certification.
  2. All excavation contractors must give their workers whistleblower and stop work authority.
  3. Policy that all excavation sites will have a valid and not-expired one-call ticket physically on the site.
  4. Policy that all one-call tickets will be renewed prior to expiration.
  5. Policy to properly expose (pothole) all utilities within the tolerance zone surrounding a locator’s marks.
  6. Policy to stop excavation in the area and request a re-mark if a utility cannot be found as marked.
  7. Policy to stop excavation in the area and request a re-mark if an unmarked or mismarked utility is found.
  8. Policy to maintain the location mark and stop excavation if the marks are no longer visible.
  9. Policy to hire GSS subcontractors with few exceptions.
  10. Thorough investigation procedure to be used and completed within five days of an incident.
  11. Corrective action procedure with root cause analysis.

All participants are required to provide copies of the actual training curriculum, PowerPoint slides, employee quizzes and other materials used for training for approval by the GSS organization. All employees must also take and pass a quiz. The GSS documents include a checklist for each of the following: training curriculum, training quiz, employee acknowledgement, incident investigation and corrective action — all of which must be implemented and adhered to.

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Contractor Concerns

NUCA and various contractor associations recently formed a group to determine and collectively document contractor’s concerns. The document titled “Contractor Perspectives on the Gold Shovel Standard” was provided to the GSS organization. The group also met with a representative from the GSS organization to discuss these contractor concerns. Unfortunately, the meeting did not produce many satisfactory answers to our questions and concerns.

Contractor concerns include the EICO scoring process, the sharing of GSS data and how this process will affect the relationship between contractors and facility operators. There is also concern about how this so-called voluntary program is forcing contractors to join an organization that provides no tangible benefits and is forcing contractors to participate in a program that is, at this time, completely ambiguous.

There is a reluctance to report sensitive information about damages to facilities. Unlike reporting damages to the CGA DIRT system, where the information is submitted anonymously, the information reported to the GSS impedes attorney-client privilege in cases of potential litigation. Under the GSS, the information that is reported will be openly shared with members (infrastructure owners). In addition, the GSS requires all utility damages must be reported regardless of fault, and these reports could and are intended to affect a company’s EICO score.

Although the GSS says there will be a system in place that will allow an excavator to establish fault, the plan is flawed by the fact that the GSS has not established a system that will be able to deal with the thousands upon thousands of disputes that will need to be reviewed due to mismarks and unmarked utilities that are damaged. The result? Contractors will be held accountable for damages that were not their fault.

The GSS organization claims to have a plan to establish a review committee, but no specifics about the review committee have been announced. For example, there are plenty of unanswered questions, such as: Who will serve on the review committee? Who will appoint these committee members? What are members’ credentials? Will there be multiple committees to cover different regions and/or states? What about the members having the expertise to evaluate all the complexities surrounding a utility hit? Does the GSS understand the amount of time that will be required by both the contractors and the committee members that will be necessary to review all the disputes in a timely manner and establish fault?

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Subcontractors are another concern because the GSS requires utility contractors acting as GCs to hire subcontractors that are GSS certified and to assume responsibility for the quality of their damage prevention activities. It is unrealistic for them to be responsible for factors surrounding the subcontractor’s EICO score and damage prevention activities when they are not working together on the same worksite.

Professional contractors are well aware that caution must be taken when a marked utility cannot be found, an unmarked or mismarked utility is found or the marks are no longer visible. However, stopping the work is not always feasible. Unmarked and mismarked utilities are encountered every day and contractors want to know if facility owners are willing to accept the consequences associated with shutdowns, including project delays. Are the facility owners also willing to accept the added costs that will be charged based on the fact that they are requiring the shutdown for something that is beyond the excavator’s control?

As it stands right now, the GSS has been adopted by some gas and electric utilities. So far, water/sewer contractors have not been hit yet because the municipalities, who in many cases are exempt from some or all one-call requirements in certain states, have not joined the GSS yet. In addition, telecom and broadband utilities have not signed on. However, the GSS is pushing hard to get municipalities and telecom/broadband companies to join and to require all contractors that perform work for them to join and comply with the GSS.

Another major concern is that states may have sold a bill of goods about this standard and will try to mandate GSS requirements as part of their one-call laws. If that happens, contractors in these states will be forced to join the GSS organization and to comply with the GSS standard.

There are many other concerns not listed here. To find out more about these concerns, visit the NUCA website and review the “Contractor Perspectives on the Gold Shovel Standard.” In addition, more information about the policies and procedures required by the GSS can be found at goldshovelstandard.com.

Conclusion

Many excavators have already signed up with the GSS organization, not necessarily because they think it is a good idea, but because they were required to or they could not get the work. Even contractors that have excellent safety and damage prevention programs, and who have worked for utilities for many years as a preferred contractor, are being required to sign up or be sidelined.

NUCA members should decide if they want to be monitored based on the GSS. Contractors in other parts of the excavation community are already expressing their discomfort with it by educating their customers about the GSS and suggesting to their customers they should not join the GSS movement. Note: It has also come to our attention that not all utilities are signing on, and some contractors have already refused to sign up.

There are mixed opinions regarding liability associated with certification programs. Therefore, contractors should carefully review the documents and requirements for becoming a GSS-certified contractor. In addition, facility owners that require contractors to be GSS certified in their contracts should realize that by including these certification requirements they may also be assuming some of the extra costs and possible liability.

It’s not our job to give legal advice, so we can only recommend that excavators and facility owners consult with their legal advisers before signing up to be a GSS-certified contractor. If your company is thinking about joining the GSS and becoming a GSS-certified contractor, be sure you are aware of your responsibilities as directed by the GSS. Also, make sure you know what is required of your company to get and maintain certification. How will being rated affect your company in the future? Be aware of what you document, sign and agree to. If you join and agree to follow the requirements of the GSS, your company must comply 100 percent or be prepared to be penalized by a poor EICO score. This is a business decision that only your company executives with legal advice can make, and it should not be entered into lightly.

George Kennedy is NUCA’s vice president of safety.

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