What is DIRT?

George KennedyAs utility and excavation contractors, we all know what dirt is because it is the soil we dig in all the time. However, there is another definition of dirt; one that is very important to our industry and every contractor should be familiar with it. DIRT is actually the acronym for Damage Information Reporting Tool. DIRT is the result of the efforts of the Common Ground Alliance (CGA), an organization which NUCA has been an active participant since its beginning.

CGA’s primary purpose is the promotion of safe underground excavation practices and the prevention of damages to existing underground utilities, often referred to as facilities. Through its Data Reporting & Evaluation Committee (DR&EC), DIRT is used to gather meaningful data regarding the occurrence of utility damages that occur during excavation activities.

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According to the 2012 annual report, when locate requests are made prior to proceeding with an excavation, damage is avoided 99 percent of the time. That means, less than 1 percent of underground excavations that are preceded by a locate request result in damages. This is encouraging, but unfortunately 20 percent of contractors/developers, 12 percent utilities, 66 percent occupant/farmers, 22 percent government and 31 percent other — all of whom are considered part of the excavation group — are not calling before they dig, which often results in damages. The question is why? This is one of the things DIRT seeks to determine.

The Purpose of DIRT
The primary purpose in collecting underground facility damage data is to analyze data, to learn why utility hits occur and how actions by excavators, utility companies, locators and other stakeholders can prevent them in the future; thereby, ensuring the safety and protection of people and the infrastructure. Accurate and complete data collection will allow the DR&EC to identify root causes, perform trend analysis and help educate all stakeholders so that damages can be reduced through effective practices and procedures.

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The 2012 DIRT Report indicated that locator, natural gas, telecommunications and One-Call centers were the reporting stakeholder groups for 94 percent of the events (the occurrence of downtime, damages and near misses) submitted for 2012, with locators submitting the most events. This clearly shows that contractors are underreporting events and need to be more proactive and submit all events that do or could have resulted in underground facility damage. Without that data, contractors will continue to look bad in the eyes of companies, organizations and government agencies that review the annual report. This could result in laws, rules and regulations that may affect underground and excavation contractors.

Underreporting by Contractors

Although DIRT has produced valuable and useful information to the CGA and stakeholders, one problem still exists and that is underreporting by contractors with particular emphasis on the low volume of reports that are submitted in reference to insufficient locating practices which often result in a near miss. Reports of insufficient locates include hits or near misses due to incorrect facility records/maps, facility marking or location not sufficient (mismarks), facility was not located or marked and facility could not be found or located.

Situations that result in utility damages due to insufficient locating practices are generally reported by someone. However many contractors are failing to file their own DIRT reports, which tell their side of the event (utility damage). When a contractor fails to submit a report after damage occurs, the utilities and/or locator’s report(s) end up being the only information that is entered into the system for analysis. It’s NUCA’s contention that this results in the annual DIRT report being distorted — resulting in excavators being the bad actors, but it is our own fault because contractors are not taking the small amount of time to collect the necessary information and file a report. In most situations, contractors are already collecting most of the information after damage occurs but they don’t file a DIRT report (which, by the way, is submitted anonymously so you don’t have to worry about it being used against your company).

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As far as near misses (the hits that don’t involve damage, but could have if luck was not on your side that day), these need to be routinely reported, but are usually not. These are the situations where you step back, reevaluate the job and say, “If we dug a few more inches to the right or left, we would have hit that 8-in. gas line, water pipe or other utility line.” Near misses (locating practices not sufficient) are the lines that were not marked, were marked in the wrong location, nobody knew they were there, etc., that your crew could have hit and damaged. Contractors need to instruct their project managers, supervisors, foremen and operators to report these near misses to their safety department so they can be recorded and reported to DIRT. You know as well as I that these near misses happen far too often for comfort, but contractors are not making this information known to the stakeholders by filing a DIRT report. Ron Nunes, NUCA’s 2014 Chairman, said, “Sometimes we are so happy we did not hit the line, we just forget the importance of reporting the situation.”

When an event happens and the contractor must stop operations until the situation can be cleared, downtime is involved. Due to the fact that contractors are not submitting data to DIRT, downtime is another area that is underreported. For example, the 2012 DIRT Report shows that a large number of reports (approximately 88 percent) submitted by the stakeholders do not include downtime data. We believe this is because the majority of DIRT reports are submitted by stakeholders other than the contractors who actually experience the downtime. The downtime data that is being submitted indicates that the majority of events resulted in one to two hours of downtime with a cost of $1,000 or less per event. Is this information accurate? From what I have been told, it is not accurate and that is because contractors are not submitting their data to DIRT.

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How to File a DIRT Report
The place to start is the CGA DIRT website at www.cga-dirt.com. There you can find and download the 2012 DIRT Annual Report, DIRT user’s guide, an online or off-line Damage Report Form and even sign up for Virtual Private DIRT (VPD) that you can customize and use for your company or organization and upload to DIRT when you are ready. CGA has made it very simple and has provided multiple ways to input data into the DIRT system.

The DIRT form is very simple to fill out and should not take more than a few minutes to complete in the field or in the office. It is simply a matter of answering some simple questions by checking the boxes. There is also an additional comments section where you can add some comments, concerns or explain the situation in more detail if you feel there is a need. It can be filled out online and submitted immediately or you can provide field supervisors with a paper copy of the form so they can fill it out and submit it to the safety department for review before submitting the data to CGA. In fact, you can collect the data from as many events as necessary and then submit them all at once at a later date. However, CGA does establish a deadline each year for data to be submitted.

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Warren Graves, NUCA’s Safety and Damage Prevention Chairman, has decided to make it his goal to get NUCA members to participate in DIRT so that contractors are adequately represented in the annual DIRT report. He realized that his company, The Fishel Co., has collected most of the necessary data for years and that it was not entered into the DIRT system, but that is going to change. In addition, Ron Nunes and Warren Graves both want to ensure that NUCA members realize the importance of submitting the data when a utility damage or near miss occurs. In their opinions, it is imperative to submit data.

Let’s clean up DIRT and make sure that contractor information related to utility damages, downtime and near misses don’t go unreported. Input your data routinely; I promise it’s painless and will not take up much time. A few minutes here and a there can help our industry improve its image and stop looking like the utility damage bad guys. We know that we don’t want to hit and damage utilities any more than the utilities want us, so let’s show them where we really stand and input the data to improve the accuracy of DIRT. Visit www.cga-dirt.com for more information and details about the Damage Information Reporting Tool.

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Always remember to be safe — Call 811 before you dig!

George Kennedy is NUCA Vice President of Safety.