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When COVID-19 Abates, Excavation Damages Are Likely to Rise

Construction has felt the effects of COVID-19 as much as any other industry, but light may be on the horizon. When activity resumes, it will inevitably mean a threat to thousands of underground facilities.
By Benjamin R. Dierker
April 22, 2020
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The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and accompanying government actions have shuttered most economic activity in America. The construction industry has felt the effects as much as any other, but light may be on the horizon. And when activity resumes, that will inevitably mean a threat to thousands of underground facilities.

Far from pessimism, the threat is a statistical likelihood for two reasons. First, we are entering the summer, when construction is busiest and most damages occur. Second, to make up for lost productivity, there will be more jobs, and more onsite personnel prone to taking shortcuts.

More Groundbreaking, More Potential for Error

The summer already has the most excavation damage incidents. The likely explanation is that this is peak construction season. According to the Common Ground Alliance (CGA), which tracks excavation damage incidents through its Damage Information Reporting Tool (DIRT), summer is more than twice as incident prone as winter.

This is intuitive: as more projects begin, more damage incidents will occur. These need not be proportional, as best practices greatly reduce the likelihood of an incident; but with more excavators breaking ground, the likelihood that some are striking facilities goes up.

Excavation damage incidents are positively correlated to construction. Through DIRT, this is assessed as a ratio of “damages per million dollars of construction spending.” For 2018, that ratio was 0.392. In addition to damage being more likely simply because of the upcoming season, it’s clear that this ratio has grown over each of the last three years. It is not only correlated positively, but it is growing. We can expect more damage simply because the trend predicts it.

As the calendar heatmap from DIRT already demonstrates, the concentration of damage incidents related to construction work peaks in the summer and continues into the fall. The construction season will last longer into the fall this year for a few reasons.

First is that supply chain disruptions will likely lead to focus on domestic and North American manufacturing. This will require new factories, warehouses and the like. Not only will there be a great rush to more groundbreaking, but it may prolong the construction season. This means underground facilities will face a longer season of possible exposure.

Cutting Corners Means Cutting Cables

The end of COVID-19 distancing and economic restrictions coinciding with the onset of summer is happenstance. The industry should already expect to see more damage in the summer just because it is summer. But the virus will likely lead to an even greater share of damages because of the economic harm already done.

In many states, construction has been deemed nonessential. Across industries, supply chains have been disrupted and social distancing has made certain onsite tasks near impossible. This has led to simultaneous cost increases and revenue declines during 2020.

To make up for lost productivity, lost time, and lost income, many will be pressured to work faster and even cut corners. Whether that is failing to notify a One Call center before beginning an excavation project, breaking ground before the ticket window has matured, or skipping the pothole testing, the temptation will exist. When any of these occur, the chance that a pipeline or cable is severed skyrockets.

“Notification Not Made” already leads as the singular root cause of excavation damage. That is in normal times. The next two highest known root cases are also timing-related errors: “Excavator dug prior to verifying marks by test hole (pothole)” and “Excavator dug before valid start date/time.” With a rush to get back to work, we could expect each of these will be more common.

Whether it is due to cutting corners to finish the work faster or improper training, the outcome can be the same: expensive and harmful damage. That cost goes up significantly when the damaged item is a natural gas pipeline. In the last 20 years, there was an average of five deaths or injuries per month due to natural gas pipelines alone.

Best Practices Are More Important Than Ever

It’s clear construction will resume soon. Unfortunately, business as usual means thousands of damage incidents. If the trends continue and the post-coronavirus predictions hold true, more damage than usual should be expected. This will make 2020 particularly costly and even deadly if locators, excavators and everyone involved in construction does not take best practices seriously.

This begins with making a notification to a One Call center, namely 8-1-1. This critical first step begins a chain of events that greatly reduce the chance of striking a buried facility. It is also vitally important to wait for the areas to be marked and not begin early.

With congress and President Trump pushing for as much as a $2 trillion infrastructure package, damage prevention efforts will be needed by private and public entities. All available evidence indicates a boom in construction, and the available trends indicate we may be in for a lot of damage as well. Now is the time to buck the trend and adhere to best practices to safeguard the economic vitality that construction will bring and to protect the lives of workers and the public.

by Benjamin R. Dierker
Benjamin R. Dierker is the Director of Public Policy at the Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii), a non-partisan think tank dedicated to improving the safety and security of America’s national infrastructure. Holding an MPA from Texas A&M and a JD from George Mason University, Benjamin researches the legal and regulatory aspects of infrastructure policy. 

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