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April is National Safe Digging Month, which highlights one of the biggest contributors to safe digging: shared responsibility. As damage prevention professionals navigate day-to-day work issues, it’s easy to become hyper-focused on one’s own daily routine and role. But safe digging requires teamwork among everyone involved in excavation: locators, excavators, facility owners/operators, homeowners and notification centers alike.

To Jason Ponciano, district manager at Vannguard Utility Partners, Inc. (which serves several states, including Minnesota), shared responsibility means that “everybody, from the utility company down to the locators, the contractors, even Gopher State One Call, takes a role or a part to prevent damages.”

Ultimately shared responsibility entails “understanding each other’s challenges, working toward solutions and [understanding that] the better we work together, the safer we are,” says Adam McAlpine, state director – Minnesota at USIC, LLC, which provides locating services to facility owners all over the country.

Here are five important lessons that these damage prevention professionals—who each have more than 20 years of locating industry experience—wish everyone understood about shared responsibility.

1. White marking helps everyone

Marking the excavation area in white prior to submitting a locate request is required by law in Minnesota. White markings increase locators’ efficiency by clearly showing exactly where they need to locate. They also help minimize the need for guesswork and help keep jobs on schedule for everyone involved in an excavation. As McAlpine puts it, white marking “eliminates confusion and saves time.”

Ponciano notes that some excavators may take advantage of the “except when it can be shown it is not practical” caveat in the white marking language of Minnesota’s dig law. “Everybody can come up with some reason why it's not practical for them to white mark. And that's probably one of our biggest complaints,” he says. “It takes a lot of time out of a locator's day to try to figure out where they're going. If they can't figure out where they're going, they're trying to call that contractor—and if the contractor doesn't answer, now it's put them behind schedule.”

Beyond keeping jobs running on schedule, white marking can help decrease the chance of a damage—clear and precise marks begin with clear and precise marking instructions, after all. Gopher State One Call offers tips for giving precise marking instructions and marking your excavation area in white.

2. Respect and maintain the marks

It’s just as important to ensure that markings stay fresh and visible through the excavation. McAlpine notes that excavators can help preserve locate markings by using stakes or offset markings, and by “scheduling work to match the excavation start time to ensure fresh markings for the beginning of excavation.”

As described in the Gopher State One Call 2021 handbook, offsets are indicated on a permanent surface or stakes, and are placed parallel to the facility. The offset should indicate the distance from the offset to the facility and should identify the facility owner (and if necessary, the size of the facility).

3. Submit tickets in manageable increments, and know when to use a Meet ticket

On the surface, submitting a locate ticket that covers a large area might seem like a good way to be efficient, but for locators it typically has the opposite effect.

“I’ve seen tickets called in that are 25 miles long,” McAlpine explains. “That can be a waste of time and resources, and leads to confusion.” Asking for a week's worth of work at once can also lead to markings not being fresh once the excavator or homeowner finally does get to the later stages of the job, he points out. Submitting one ticket for a large work site can contribute to markings deteriorating while the project is still underway—and all of these factors could easily lead to a damage.

“Calling in tickets in a reasonable manner can help the locating companies out because we know where we start and where we finish,” Ponciano says. “And then that next ticket that comes in, we know where to start and finish it. We don’t have to try to accomplish five miles [in one locate.]”

For large or complex jobs, a Meet ticket can help get everyone on the same page so that markings remain intact, and safety remains the priority. Learn more about when to use a Meet ticket, and how to handle Meet tickets safely during COVID-19.

4. Remember that locators can’t see in the ground

Ponciano says that one of the biggest misconceptions about locating is the idea that it’s straightforward. “Locating is not an exact science. We are using manmade machines where the technology can be really great, or it can fail because it's manmade,” he explains. “There’s a lot of daily road bumps that can really mess up a locator's day.”

“Each locate brings a different challenge and a potential risk to the public and the excavators,” McAlpine says. “Every day varies greatly depending on ticket requests, scopes of work, age of utilities, installation practices, weather, ground conditions, condition of the circuit and excavator requests and needs.”

“We can’t see in the ground,” McAlpine adds. “We must put trust in our equipment, process and information gathered.”

5. Understand others’ challenges

When McAlpine started out in the damage prevention industry, locators and excavators used paper tickets, two-way radios, pay phones and sketches. “Technology has brought a whole new level of communication: positive response, email, text messaging, post-locate photos,” he says. “We have the opportunity and ability to communicate at a much higher frequency and share more detail while being mindful of everyone’s time.”

Digital communication theoretically makes communication easier, but when there’s a lack of face-to-face interaction or personal relationships, it can “sometimes lead to misinterpretation of information or communication [and] I think that can also lead to not understanding each other's challenges as much. I think understanding those challenges is important to help with communication,” he says.

Ponciano notes that increasing conflicts over damage responsibility seems to have exacerbated miscommunications. “When I first started in this [industry] back in 1998, I could go out to the damage and we would shake hands and say, ‘You know what, I’m at fault’ or ‘The contractor is at fault.’ We went on our way, and either locating companies paid the invoice or the contractors paid the invoice. Now there's a lot of pointing fingers [about] who's at fault.”

In order to preserve trust, everyone involved in excavation needs to set those conflicts aside and do their part. For locators, that means “portraying a complete and full story to excavators through locate markings, labels and flags to ensure the folks digging have all the detail needed to dig safely,” McAlpine says. “If something doesn’t look right or seems to be incorrect, if markings are missing or obliterated—ask. See something, say something.”

By following these tips, as well as dig law and the Gopher State One Call handbook, everyone involved in excavation in Minnesota can do their part to ensure shared responsibility for safe digging.

As McAlpine notes, “The groups that collaborate, communicate, share information and show an ability to work together seem to be more successful with regard to safety and timeliness.”

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