As damage prevention stakeholders, we are all focused on keeping people and property safe. And while everyone’s goal is zero damages, the reality is that damages do occur.
In the past five years in the United States and Canada, damages to buried utilities have increased or stayed relatively steady, according to the Common Ground Alliance, with 475,770 damage events reported via the CGA’s Damage Information Reporting Tool in 2020.
Eric Kolcinski, a damage prevention coordinator with CenterPoint Energy and the president of the Metropolitan Utility Coordinating Committee, points out that in Minnesota, overall damage numbers appear to be staying “roughly the same, as expressed in a ratio of damages per 1,000 tickets.” However, he adds, “there are localized fluctuations in certain types of damaging parties and damage root causes—i.e., an increase in homeowner damages during summer 2020 with people working remotely during COVID-19.”
In addition to investigating damages, Kolcinski works closely with excavators to help troubleshoot and educate in order to reduce them. Before he joined CenterPoint in 2016, he worked in line locator, lead tech and supervisor/managerial positions, becoming involved in all aspects of line locating, interacting with GSOC and Minnesota dig law, training locators and working with excavators and utility operators.
“Communication is the biggest tool in damage prevention,” Kolcinski says. “I see my day-to-day job as helping damage prevention stakeholders be able to clearly communicate with each other to avoid damaging buried facilities.” Here, he explains what happens when a damage does occur in Minnesota.
What constitutes a damage?
We have all heard of tragic pipeline incidents and electrocutions, but damages don’t have to be large or disruptive to be dangerous. That means that all damages must be taken seriously in order to maintain our communities’ safety and underground infrastructure’s integrity.
Minnesota’s dig law (Chapter 216D, Subdivision 2) defines a “damage” as:
(1) the substantial weakening of structural or lateral support of an underground facility;
(2) penetration, impairment, or destruction of any underground protective coating, housing, or other protective device; or
(3) impact with or the partial or complete severance of an underground facility to the extent that the facility operator determines that repairs are required.
Per the Gopher State One Call handbook, a damage can include “the pulling or kinking of the facility or damage to the protective coating, covering or tracer wire.” Essentially, “damage” is defined as any impact with an underground facility, even if it may appear to be minor.
The facility operator—not the excavator—is the only party that can make an independent determination of whether a damage has in fact occurred. Damages, or potential damages, aren’t always apparent to those without the expertise in that specific facility type. Kolcinski gives the example of a steel gas main’s coating being damaged: “If a steel main with slight coating damage is reburied without being repaired, it can corrode and cause a leak years down the road.”
What causes damages?
There are many root causes that contribute to damages, including human error, negligence, degradation of locate marks and several other factors. The most common root cause of damages that Kolcinski sees where he works in Minnesota is the excavator using mechanized equipment within the tolerance zone, for example: a drill operator blind-boring or an excavator digging without potholing. (See the GSOC handbook for more detail on proper tolerance zone excavation protocols.)
What to do when a damage occurs
While preventing damages is a shared responsibility among all stakeholders, excavators are on the front lines of this battle (including homeowner excavators). Even when there is no noticeable damage or apparent problem, any contact with a facility must be taken seriously by the excavator. As the GSOC handbook states, “During the course of excavating, it is the excavator’s responsibility to inspect and support all facilities that have been exposed. If during your excavation, equipment comes in physical contact with an underground facility, even if there is no noticeable damage, you must stop the excavation and contact the facility owner.”
Calling 911 is the first step when a damage occurs that poses a clear and immediate danger, says Kolcinski. Next, the damaging party should notify the utility owner. (You can find the phone numbers for underground facility operators on their utility markers or in your GSOC ticket.) “The 911 call typically generates a notification to the utility owner’s dispatch so a repair crew can be sent,” Kolcinski adds. “If there was an 811 ticket submitted, the company that did the locates will send someone to investigate.”
Gas line and emergency damages
Minnesota dig law defines an emergency as a damage that “results in the escape of any flammable, toxic or corrosive gas or liquid or endangers life, health or property.” Specifically, when there is an escape of gas, it poses a risk to personal and public safety.
“With the right combination of gas, oxygen and an ignition source, gas can ignite. While ignition is rare, it is a possibility, and the consequences can be severe,” Kolcinski explains. “Natural gas will take the path of least resistance. In cases where there is an underground damage under hard surfaces, such as concrete or frost, the gas can migrate, finding its way into any conduit or pathway it can move through. Gas can migrate into basements, storm sewers and other spaces and cause possible issues away from the point of contact.”
“Any escape of gas needs to be treated seriously,” he adds. Excavators must quickly determine whether the damage has resulted in any risk to the public and take necessary action until representative(s) from the underground facility operator take control of the situation.
Calling 911 immediately is especially crucial in cases where there is an escape of gas. The next step is to get anyone else in the area upwind of the gas. Per GSOC recommendations, an excavator should “attempt to minimize the hazard until emergency responders arrive and complete their assessment of the situation.” This may require the excavator to secure the scene or evacuate people from the hazard, as Kolcinski details.
Once people nearby are safe and 911 has been called, notify the utility owner. This is critical even when there is no gas escape or obvious damage to a pipe, Kolcinski notes. “We will send a crew to inspect the pipe to determine if a repair needs to be made; this includes tracer wires, steel main coating damage and pipes thought to be abandoned.” He adds, “Do not attempt to stop the flow of gas by pinching over the pipe or trying to plug the hole.”
GSOC suggests that operators have emergency training procedures in place for field personnel so they can safely assess and respond to emergency situations in the field.
If the excavator does have a damage prevention department contact, such as a DPC or supervisor, Kolcinski says that they can contact the utility owner after the other notifications have been made. “Often these calls to the damage prevention department, after all the other notifications have been made, gives the excavator a chance to share any information they have, such as photos or other documentation. They can also ask us to meet them on site and review the damage.”
How a damage is investigated
The repairing crew will take photos and get information from the damaging party, Kolcinski explains—however, fault is not discussed or determined at this part of the process.
“There should be no discussion of liability or ‘at-fault’ at the time of the damage,” he says. “The main thing is for our crews to safely complete the repairs. All parties involved need time to investigate thoroughly. Some of the damages that seem the most clear-cut at first glance are anything but.”
A big part of Kolcinski’s role as damage prevention coordinator is to complete damage investigations to determine root cause. “We use root cause analysis to help drive our damage prevention and outreach/education efforts, so they are a very important data point,” he says. “When the repair crew responds to the hit line, they gather information and take photos of the damaged facility and damage scene. Typically you will see them using a ‘hit kit’ or similar device(s) to measure and give physical context to the scene.”
If there was a locate request submitted and it was located by a contract locate company, that company will send an investigator to do their own investigation, Kolcinski adds. “Once we receive the investigation report from the locate company, I review all available documentation. I first pull up the 811 ticket to make sure it’s a legal ticket and that the damage occurred in the work area defined by the ticket. I’ll then look at the reports, photos and documentation to determine the root cause. It is usually pretty cut and dry, but of course there are oddballs that end up being very time-consuming.”
In addition to the aforementioned mechanized equipment used within the tolerance zone, Kolcinski notes that he also sees damages with root causes related to no ticket being called in, inaccurate or missing locates, expired tickets, working outside of the work area, not maintaining locate marks, hand tool damages and other causes. Investigating to determine the root cause is not just to assign fault, though—that data can also help prevent future damages. “We want to make sure that the most accurate possible root cause is assigned to each damage, so we are quite meticulous when we are reviewing the details,” Kolcinski explains.
Damage fault and repair costs
Minnesota law requires any repair may only be performed by qualified personnel authorized by the underground facility operator. An excavator can never backfill or bury a damaged underground facility, nor should they attempt to repair it themselves.
Per Minnesota’s Chapter 216D, if an excavator is at fault for damaging the facility, they will reimburse the operator for the cost of necessary repairs. For a pipeline, they also will reimburse for the cost of the product that was being carried and was lost as a direct result of the damage.
If it is determined that the damage was caused by the sole negligence of the operator, or the operator failing to comply with Chapter 216D.04, subdivision 3 (which details required utility locating practices, mapping and timelines), the excavator is not responsible for reimbursement.
Any excavator who fails to submit a locate request and causes a damage would be considered negligent in a civil court action, according to state dig law. In addition, an excavator who knowingly damages an underground facility, and who does not notify the operator as soon as reasonably possible or who backfills in violation of Minnesota dig law, is guilty of a misdemeanor.
Working toward a damage-free future
As Kolcinski says, “the most effective tool in damage prevention is clear communication: Communication between damage prevention stakeholders and the excavation community, communication between the locator and the excavator, communication between the foreperson and the crews, communication between the operators and the spotters.”
He advises excavators to follow these tips to help minimize damages:
- Potholing/daylighting is not only the law; it is one of the most important parts of excavating safely. A hydro-vac is an excellent way to expose facilities. “We have seen a reduction of damages by excavators utilizing this type of potholing,” he says.
- Hand-digging around marked facilities would greatly reduce damage numbers
- If you are using a backhoe or similar, make sure you are using a spotter. “If the spotter is taking a break or runs to grab something, the operator should stop and wait,” Kolcinski says. “The spotter is your eyes in the hole. Don’t dig blind.”
- On projects or larger excavations, use a meet sheet and keep in regular contact with your locator
- If locate marks become wiped out or weathered, call for a re-mark and wait for the lines to be remarked.
Of course, it should go without saying, but he adds: “Make sure to call 811 or file a locate request online before you dig and wait for the locates to be performed prior to digging.”