Common Ground Study
In 1998, the U.S. Congress passed the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA 21). In this legislation, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) was instructed to conduct a study of best practices in place nationwide for enhancing worker safety, protecting vital underground infrastructure, and ensuring public safety during excavation activities conducted in the vicinity of existing underground facilities. USDOT charged the former Office of Pipeline Safety [OPS; now the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA)] with conducting the study.
On August 18, 1998, PHMSA invited stakeholders from underground utility safety and damage prevention industries to a kick-off meeting in Arlington, VA, to discuss how to implement the study. This unprecedented gathering facilitated by the government provided a unique opportunity for affected industries to address serious issues that previously had not been addressed at the federal level by all parties involved. In essence, the government was giving industry an opportunity to get its house in order. At the time, minimizing damage to facilities during excavation activities was on the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) top 10 priorities for safety improvement.
The most daunting task before the group was developing a process for identifying and designating “best practices.” For the first time, the federal government brought these industries together and established an organizational structure to address the multiple facets of underground utility safety and damage prevention. In addition to designating “best practices,” the group had to address each stakeholder group’s responsibilities in the one call process.
Each of the major stakeholder groups designated a representative to form a committee that would develop the processes and procedures to conduct the study. This team was known as the Steering Team, which oversaw and coordinated what became known as the Common Ground Study (CGS). In addition to the 8-member Steering Team, the structure consisted of a 14-member Linking Team and 9 study teams. The nine study teams were charged with the study’s primary goal—identifying best practices in their respective areas of expertise. Those teams included Planning and Design, One Call Centers, Locating and Marking, Excavation, Mapping, Compliance, Public Awareness and Education, Reporting and Evaluation, and Emerging Technologies.
There were 162 individuals participating in the study, representing stakeholders from across the nation including oil and gas transmission and distribution, telecommunications, railroads, utilities, electric, water, sewer, cable TV, one call centers, excavators, locators, design engineers, regulators, and government entities at federal, state, and local levels. The study’s chief success was overcoming two obstacles—fragmented information and the lack of stakeholder cooperation and collaboration. This was no easy task, but after several months of fits and starts, the stakeholders came together and the study was underway.
Major lessons learned during the CGS were that communication is the key to ensuring safety and protecting vital facilities; and that free-flow communication allows all stakeholders to focus on the common goals for safety and damage prevention. Another key element was that cooperation is essential and it works, as proven by the success of the study.
One of the most controversial elements of the process for determining a “best practice” was the use of the consensus process. For a practice to become a “best practice,” all stakeholder groups must agree that they could live with the practice; if one group disagreed, the practice would not become a “best practice.” It was realized early on that the final product would not stand unless all stakeholders agreed with the content. To this day, consensus is used by CGA committees and in identifying “best practices.” This single element of the process is what arguably gives the CGA and the “best practices” document its integrity and ensures that all elements of an issue are vetted comprehensively. The consensus process also proved, and continues to prove, that all stakeholders can reach consensus on the best practices to enhance safety and prevent damages.
The CGS identified and validated over 130 “best practices” to enhance safety and prevent damages to underground facilities. In July 1999, 11 months after the kick-off meeting in Arlington and after many intense meetings throughout the country, the CGS was presented to the Secretary of Transportation.