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Damage Root Causes Remain Consistent

DIRT collects specific root cause data across 25 (known) categories, plus an “unknown/other" option. CGA’s Data Committee also consolidates related causes into higher-level groups, providing an overview of what went wrong. The multi-level structure, from specific to grouped causes, enables nuanced root cause analysis while also highlighting macro trends. Filtering out "unknown/other" focuses insights on identifiable failure points within the damage prevention system.

In this section of the Report, we present 2022 data as well as data from the three-year comparable dataset. Click here to view definitions of damage root causes.

Root Cause Analysis Highlights:

  • In 2022, the top six root causes make up nearly 76% of damages, with each major root cause group represented. The top six root causes also ranked highest in 2021, indicating a consistent set of prevalent issues.
  • Tailoring initiatives to address these vital few root causes can drive progress – but some of the top causes are broad “catch-alls” likely masking deeper issues.
  • Identifying and addressing deeper-level root causes, beyond documentation for claims and/or enforcement purposes, will play a critical role in addressing the most significant challenges in damage prevention.

2022 Individual Damage Root Causes

As has been noted in past DIRT Reports, the top six root causes have been consistent year-over-year and also represent the vast majority of all damages, making these key targets for reductions. These consistent top individual root causes will be discussed in more depth in the next section of the Report.



Minor Fluctuations in Root Cause Groups Reflect Increase in Excavator Submissions

The slight changes in root cause groups over time can be explained by expanded excavator reporting. Locating practices root causes edge up while the no locate request root cause declines in the three-year comparable dataset. This trend strengthens when examining the full 2022 dataset, which includes newer excavator reporters not yet meeting the three-year threshold of the comparable dataset. With excavators identifying locating issues in most of their reports, their inclusion pulls locating practices higher compared to the consistent reporting set. This may not mean there has been a increase in locating issues, but rather more balanced stakeholder data. Still, it underscores collective responsibility across the process.


The Liability Trap: Catch-All Root Causes

In order to start driving down damages, where should we look? First, we should understand that some of the top individual root causes are essentially catch-alls for their respective root cause groups. Many facility operators and contract locators base their DIRT root cause selections on information they collect to support repair claims (determining who is billed for repair costs). Regulatory agencies use code enforcement data (determining who is penalized for a rule violation). These catch-all buckets may adequately serve those purposes. However, they often mask more complex root causes that must be addressed in order to reduce damages. The following sections discuss how this phenomenon can play out within the major root cause groups.


No Locate Request

"No locate request" stands as its own group, consistently the top root cause and responsible for 25% of 2022 damages. Without contacting 811, the damage prevention process fails from the start. No-notification damages can mask other underlying issues:

  • Expired or invalid tickets may be checked only superficially before assigning no notification. Issues like work area deviations or mismarks may go unaddressed.
  • When marks are inaccurate, lack of a valid ticket might support repair bills and penalties, but the mismark is the true root cause of the damage.

If excavators fail to pothole/maintain clearance while also not having a valid ticket (e.g., expired or “piggy-backing”), the damage may be recorded as no notification rather than an excavation practice.

Because professional excavators dig so much more frequently than occupant/farmers, they also cause the vast majority of dig-ins due to failure to notify 811. CGA research shows professional excavator 811 awareness is high, suggesting that outreach and education efforts should shift to consistent and effective use of 811 – and addressing why excavators are making the decision not to contact 811 prior to digging. No notification damages concentrate in private property work like landscaping and fencing, indicating that these professionals are likely distinct from heavy construction and utility contractors, and could benefit from targeted 811 awareness and outreach.

The persistence of no-notification damages despite high 811 awareness also indicates that excavators lack confidence in the system, which may require enforcement or other financial or legal consequences and shoring up 811 system reliability to reverse.

Resources like CGA's "Tips for Effective Use of 811" video highlight the excavator's role in an efficient process when utilizing 811.

The following graphs examine no-notification damages using the 2022 full dataset and highlight opportunities for targeted outreach.


Excavation Practices

The excavation practices root cause group made up 33% of damages with a known root cause in the 2022 full dataset. The majority (59%) of damages in this group point specifically to failure to maintain clearance and/or failure to pothole. These individual root causes are combined in our analysis because they are closely related, often selected interchangeably in damage investigations and involve safe excavation within the tolerance zone. The leading types of work when failure to maintain clearance or failure to pothole are the root cause are: telecommunication, water, sewer, natural gas and electric.

In the top six individual root causes table, failure to maintain clearance and failure to pothole were numbers three and six respectively. Improper excavation (practice not listed elsewhere) was number five, and one of the “catch-alls” referred to earlier. As seen in the following graph, improper excavation typically makes up a quarter to a third of this root cause group (comparable dataset, 2020-2022). It likely includes some events that in reality are failure to pothole or maintain clearance, but the root cause investigation did not delve deep enough to reveal it. Excavator failed to protect/shore/support facilities is also fairly high on the individual root cause list at number seven, and likely makes up a portion of improper excavation.

CGA’s Excavator White Paper, published in 2019, took a closer look at awareness and execution of safe digging practices within the excavator community. The paper noted that “excavators have limited knowledge about regulations beyond the need to notify before beginning work,” with the survey “showing that concepts such as potholing, needing to maintain marks or request re-marks, and other critical but lesser-emphasized excavation Best Practices do not have the same level of awareness and compliance as making the notification.”

The following graphs specifically examine damages with failure to pothole and maintain clearance root causes using the 2022 full dataset. It is concerning that high-consequence facilities like natural gas are frequently affected by these persistent damage drivers. On the other hand, facility owner/operators have significant leverage given that utility and energy work were performed during 70% of failure to pothole/maintain clearance damages in 2022.

Increased emphasis on safe digging practices specifically within the tolerance zone would have an impact on excavator errors in the field. However, awareness and education are only two contributing factors. Other steps that would contribute to more widespread use of potholing include:

  • Project owners (including facility owner/operators) requiring and adequately compensating for potholing.
  • Applying emerging mapping/GIS technologies in project design and subsurface utility engineering (SUE). CGA’s 2022 Technology Report included case studies highlighting opportunities for improved mapping and use of design/SUE. Improved mapping can streamline potholing and reduce associated expenses by avoiding wasteful or unsuccessful potholes (not finding the utility searched for).

Locating Practices

About two-thirds of damages attributed to locating practices specify locator error as the primary root cause. Indeed, they are numbers two and four on the top six list. Additional follow-up has shown locator error is often selected when a more specific root cause is not collected. For example, an excavator may only know that marks are inaccurate. A locator or facility operator may be better able to determine if it was a mapping, tracer wire or abandoned facility issue by reviewing maps or records the excavator does not have access to, and/or by reconstructing the markout process used for the original marks.

These issues can lead to an inaccurate locate even if the locator followed all proper procedures. Locator error is another example of a “catch-all” representing a broader spectrum of general locating issues.

The graph above shows incorrect maps/records at 10% in the full 2022 dataset; however, there are likely many other mapping related damages masked by locator error. Mapping issues could also be an underlying factor for some damages in the not marked/incomplete category. CGA Next Practices reports, the Locator White Paper and Natural Gas White Paper all identify up-to-date mapping as an effective method to improve locating.

CGA’s 2022 Technology Report featured several case studies highlighting new technologies that capture information in the field and enable the production and sharing of updated, accurate maps. The report also discussed some of the barriers to creating and sharing GIS facility maps.

This is an area where technology is rapidly advancing and has the potential to reduce incidents and make the entire damage prevention system more efficient. There are several stakeholder groups, and steps in the damage prevention process, where improved mapping could have an impact, including:

  • Excavation project owners/designers: Project design and Subsurface Utility Engineering (SUE)
  • Facility owners and contract locators: Locating and marking
  • 811 centers: Identifying work areas for electronic tickets and electronic white-lining, establishing polygons and buffer zones around member facilities

The following graphs specifically examine two of the consistent year-over-year top damage root causes – not marked/marked inaccurately due to locator error – using the 2022 full dataset. As we saw with failure to pothole/maintain clearance root causes, the vast majority of work performed for locator error-related damages was utility work. That facility owner/operators are likely the project owners for most of this work, combined with their mandate to locate their assets accurately and on time, gives that stakeholder group significant opportunities to influence damages related to locating practices.


Invalid Use of Request

Invalid use of 811 requests accounted for 6% of damages with a known root cause in the full 2022 data set. About two-thirds resulted from digging on expired tickets or outside stated work areas. As with the other root cause groups, the comparable dataset largely shows consistency in invalid use of request damages from 2020-2022. These incidents stem not from a lack of 811 awareness, but from excavators’ mistaken or incomplete understanding of regulations governing the process.

CGA’s new video series, "Tips for Effective Use of 811," educates excavators on the proper use of the system. Clear communication and understanding of process requirements are critical for excavators to avoid misusing 811.

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