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Underground utility damages have a significant impact on communities in Minnesota and beyond. According to the Common Ground Alliance (CGA), the estimated annual societal cost of damages to buried utilities in the United States is $30 billion, accounting for direct and indirect costs. Even near-misses can potentially cause scheduling issues and lost time on the job. 

Each year, the CGA collects information about damages and near-misses from facility owners, locators and excavators in North America who voluntarily submit via the Damage Information Reporting Tool (DIRT). The results are then published in the annual DIRT Report, along with summaries, analyses and best practice recommendations. 

The 2020 DIRT Report, published in September 2021, includes data from more than 475,000 damage event submissions that the CGA received in 2020. Of that number, 4,542 events came from Minnesota—up from 4,308 in 2019 and 3,567 in 2018. Below is an overview of the key takeaways and trends. CGA members can also access the full 87-page DIRT report on the CGA website.

Overall national trends and 2020 complexities

At first glance, 2020 estimated U.S. damages appear to have decreased approximately 12% over 2019. However, the CGA recommends putting that percentage into context: Estimated damages are calculated per unit of construction spending. While construction spending appeared to go up nominally in 2020 over 2019, when it is expressed in 2020 dollars (due to inflation and the cost of construction materials), spending actually went down. After adjusting for 2020 dollars, the year-over-year decrease in estimated damages is closer to 8%. 

In addition to the construction spending adjustments, 2020 posed new challenges to stakeholders and added complexity to damage data. When the data is normalized for these factors, the CGA notes that nationwide damages have essentially plateaued over the past five years. 

One positive point is that estimated one call transmissions went up in 2020, with many notification centers, including Gopher State One Call, reporting significant increases in homeowner locate requests. Also, overall homeowner-caused damages across the U.S. did not increase along with ticket intake. 

Root causes

DIRT organizes individual root causes of damages into 26 categories, which fall into broader root cause groups: 

No locate request (contributed to 32% of damages in 2020)

Includes any event where a locate request was not submitted, no matter the underlying reason. 

“No locate request” was the single largest root cause of damages to liquid pipelines and all underground facilities in 2020. Promoting consistent use of one call tickets remains a top priority for the industry as a whole. 

Locating practices group (contributed to 32% of damages in 2020)

Includes the categories of locator error, abandoned facilities, maps/records incorrect, not marked/incomplete marks and unlocatable/tracer wire issue. Locating stakeholders note that employee retention, training resources and an increase in complex locates have all been challenges in this industry. The CGA points out that late locates are consistently identified as a significant challenge by stakeholders. While late locates are not among the top contributing factors to damages, they are source of frustration for excavators that could lead to a loss of confidence in damage prevention system. 

Excavating practices group (contributed to 30% of damages in 2020)

Includes failure to maintain marks, failure to support/shore/backfill, failure to pothole/maintain clearance and other. Excavator stakeholders explain that failure to pothole/maintain clearance is a major problem within the industry, often because potholing adds extra time and cost. 

Invalid use of request by excavator group (contributed to 6% of damages in 2020)

Includes an excavator providing incorrect notification information, digging outside the area described on their ticket, digging after a valid ticket expired or digging before their valid start date/time. 

Between 2019 and 2020, what the CGA refers to as the “big three” root cause groups (no locate request, excavating issues and locating issues) remained roughly consistent. 

In 2020, the top five individual root causes accounted for nearly 70% of all damages:

  • No notification made to one call center/811
  • Excavator dug prior to verifying marks by test-hole (pothole)
  • Facility marked inaccurately due to abandoned facility
  • Facility not marked due to locator error
  • Excavator failed to maintain clearance after verifying marks

According to the CGA, there is no “silver bullet” solution that will eliminate damage events—nor can one industry singlehandedly solve the challenges we face. Damage prevention remains a shared responsibility and identifying root causes can help everyone do their part.

Looking ahead

It’s more important than ever for stakeholders to be informed about damages. Especially with the recent passage of the $1 trillion federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, we will continue to see significant investment in construction activity across the country, likely with a corresponding increase in damages.

The CGA makes the following recommendations in the 2020 DIRT Report:

  • 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 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

DIRT resources 

There are several DIRT-related resources available for CGA members:

The interactive dashboard allows you to view data by state or province. It also helps inform damage prevention plans: Look at neighboring states or your industry to compare numbers, validate your own approach and learn about emerging trends. 

two-page fact sheet sums up some of the key numbers from the 2020 report. It’s easily printable to display on the job site or in the office. 

The recent 2020 DIRT Report webinar, featuring DIRT committee members and damage prevention stakeholders from all over the country, is helpful to put the data into context. Watch it to hear stakeholders discuss industry-specific trends and recommendations in detail, including a conversation about how ticket life corresponds with damage events. 

The CGA encourages all stakeholders to submit their 2021 damage data using the DIRT tool. All information is de-identified once submitted, so stakeholders should never fear that providing damage data will be used against them. The submission deadline for 2021 data is March 31, 2022.

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