Final Word: Dangerous digging: What needs to change

Over the past six years the Common Ground Study and the Common Ground Alliance served as the main focus of this country’s underground damage prevention efforts. The work these people have done is solid and commendable and has no doubt contributed to everyone’s safety. But now it’s time to turn what everybody acknowledges to be a set of good ideas into laws.

It’s clear from the discussions our editors had with contractors and engineers around the country that there are places where One Call systems are fine and places where they aren’t; places where construction standards are strict and places where they’re haphazard. Some utility companies take great care to properly install and protect their lines; others are driven solely by bottom-line profits and speed. Such regional discrepancies beg for standardization and enforcement. There are plenty of examples to follow in other industries and a lot of new technology available today that could make this easier than ever. For example:

· Guaranteed turn arounds. If a utility or locating company can’t mark a utility within 48 or 72 hours of receiving a ticket, the utility or locating company should pay a fine – monetary damages to the contractor. Wal-Mart times the arrival of products from thousands of vendors to thousands of stores all over the country with split-second precision in response to inventory levels that change hourly. And when was the last time anyone got a late package, or the wrong package two days late from Fed-Ex or UPS?

· Internet accessibility: For a supervisor in a construction company trying to juggle a half dozen machines in the field costing hundreds of dollars an hour, being put on hold by a One Call service is unacceptable. Yet several of our survey takers commented on being put on hold for 30 minutes or longer. Some forward thinking One Call regions have already solved this problem by setting up systems whereby contractors can “call in” locates via the Internet at their convenience. Tied to the GPS systems and maps available today from firms like Qualcomm and Nextel, Internet order entry would not only prevent costly delays for the contractor, it could reduce the likelihood that the locator would lose hours of travel time by showing up at the wrong location. If GM’s On-Star satellite system can unlock grandma’s Buick from outer space, then Internet utility locating should be a breeze.

· Locator standards. Train utility and contract locators to a national standard, then evaluate them on their accuracy and timeliness. There are strict standards and certifications for ambulence and EMT personnel, welders, electricians and plumbers – even stockbrokers. Why not all locators? The National Utility Locating Contractors Association has already studied this issue and published a set of standards. (You can find them at Now it’s time to make them universal and mandatory.

· Establish fixed depths for utilities. Many of the comments on our survey had to do with not knowing the exact depth of utilities. Several readers mentioned finding live gas and electrical lines buried less than a foot underground. The only expedient solution is to establish strict regional standards for utility depths and have public inspectors approve these trenches before backfilling can begin. These depths will vary due to different soil conditions, but with consistent regional standards, contractors won’t play guessing games with their buckets or potholing equipment. A new home goes through half a dozen inspections before it can be occupied. A line carrying highly flammable natural gas or a few million volts of electricity ought to get at least one.