The emergence of new regulations, awareness campaigns and best practices across the United States and Canada has thrust the topic of damage prevention to the forefront of construction safety conversations. Excavation remains one of the riskiest construction activities, and a utility line is damaged every 6 minutes across the country.
Now that it is law to contact 811 prior to digging, infrastructure owners are opting to outsource the work involved with locating their buried assets to trained and qualified locate service providers (LSPs). This strategy makes sense from both a cost and safety perspective: Utility locating is a complex and time-consuming task that involves many aspects, from managing ticket requests to implementing a 360-degree feedback process to following an escalation protocol in cases of emergency.
Enlisting the services of an underqualified or inexperienced LSP could actually increase the likelihood of damages, injury and liability. When seeking to secure an LSP, whether through a request for qualification (RFQ) or an informal process, look for the following selection criteria.
1. Ensure Health & Safety Is a Main Focus
Above all else, be certain the LSP follows a robust health, safety and environmental (HS&E) management system that incorporates, at a minimum, principles of the Occupational Safety & Health Act, applicable general safety practices, a hazard identification and reporting mechanism and an injury/incident investigation process. Look for a commitment to environmental management. Does the LSP safely dispose of hazardous materials? Is a reuse and recycling program in place? How are spills prevented and managed? The HS&E management system should be regularly updated and implemented by an active joint health and safety committee (JH&S).
Furthermore, ensure the LSP carries out regular workplace safety audits. Ask who is in charge of the audits, how often they occur and how the audit results are documented and incorporated into policies, practices and procedures. To further reduce risk, search for a company that has been certified by an outside organization such as Avetta or ISNetworld. These organizations screen contractors to ensure compliance with current regulations. LSPs that qualify meet rigid requirements for health and safety, regulatory compliance and quality management.
2. Ask for Proof of a Commitment to Quality
A professional, experienced LSP should demonstrate a firm dedication to quality. A quality management system (QMS) should underpin every process, from the initial project site visit to submitting the final client deliverable. When assessing an LSP, ask to view a copy of the QMS. Make sure it outlines processes for records and data management, document control, inspections and testing, sustainability and corrective/preventive actions. It should highlight clear roles and responsibilities, and the organization should staff dedicated personnel, such as a quality engineer, to oversee the quality management process.
3. Look for an Investment in Continuous Training
Utility locating methodology is always evolving, and new regulations are frequently being introduced.
Field technicians should receive regular technical training on operating geophysical equipment and implementing best practices for locating and marking utilities. Technicians should also be trained to adjust locating and marking techniques based on site conditions such as rain, snow, vegetation, construction and traffic.
A commitment to health and safety training is also a must. Certifications to look out for include Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS), first aid, fall arrest, confined space entry (CSE), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) hazmat and Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response Standard (HAZWOPER), just to name a few. Damage prevention technician training workshops and certifications are also starting to emerge across the country. To verify the qualifications of an LSP, ask for copies of the key employees’ resumes and certificates.
Much of the work involved with utility locating occurs in the office, not just in the field. Utility locate requests need to be reviewed against a number of factors, including proximity of utilities to the excavation area, clarity of excavation requests, accuracy of measurements and offsets and the location of high-risk assets such as gas lines or hospitals. Ensure the LSP has the qualified resources in place to manage this aspect of utility locating.
4. Gather Information about Previous Experience
A little bit of research will go a long way toward selecting an LSP that is qualified, experienced and equipped to manage your project. Find out how many years the company has been in business, and look for experience completing projects similar to yours. For example, does the LSP have knowledge of local conditions? Have they worked on projects of a comparable size and scope? Secure contact information for at least three references to verify that the projects were completed safely and successfully.
Ensure a project plan is in place to forecast workload fluctuations, and adjust resources accordingly. A responsive plan should be developed for dealing with unpredictable fluctuations. This is key to confirming tickets are processed in a timely manner and that unnecessary delays aren’t introduced to the project.
5. Study Methodology & Locating Approaches
Choose an LSP that can offer more than basic locating capabilities and is experienced in leveraging a variety of geophysical instrumentation and methods. In instances where a tracer wire has broken or is missing, or there are buried utilities comprised of concrete or PVC material, basic utility locating equipment will not detect the utility. In these cases, more advanced technologies, such as ground penetrating radar (GPR), may be required. It is helpful to work with an LSP that can swap in other technologies and be flexible to navigate challenges and surprises as they arise.
Ensure the LSP begins the locating process with a visual inspection to identify access points and potential hazards, and that plant facilities shown on available records match those that are actually on the jobsite. This is especially critical on project sites where new construction has occurred or is in progress. Evidence of buried infrastructure might include poles, dips, enclosures, pedestals, valves, meters and manholes.
Furthermore, confirm the LSP has a documented damage investigation procedure in place. If damage does occur throughout the course of locating, whether due to technician error or other circumstances, the LSP should investigate the damage to determine the root cause and any additional factors that may have contributed to the damage. There should also be a formal process in place for documenting and communicating the findings of the investigation.
With ever-evolving regulatory requirements and the risky nature of excavation, choosing to outsource utility locating is a decision heavily weighted in risk management. By keeping key selection criteria in mind, infrastructure owners can confidently transfer the responsibility to an expert, qualified LSP that will minimize potential hazards, complete work safely and ensure compliance with regulations and other requirements. For more information and resources on damage prevention, visit the Common Ground Alliance at commongroundalliance.com.