Locator Research - Initial Results

Initial Research Overview: Locators Highlight Updated Maps, White-Lining and Increased Communication as Paramount to Improving Locating Speed and Accuracy

August 31, 2020 - Locating buried utilities is a critical component of the damage prevention process. With demand for utility locates increasing, pressure has intensified for the locating industry to deliver timely and accurate locates. According to the Common Ground Alliance’s most recent Damage Information Reporting Tool (DIRT) Report, more than 20% of annual damages to buried infrastructure are attributed to locating issues, which indicates that the damage prevention industry still has work to do to ensure that buried utilities are marked correctly and on time.

The mission of the Common Ground Alliance (CGA) is centered around the concept that damage prevention is a shared responsibility. To that end, CGA recently worked with a third-party research firm to survey more than 400 locators to determine how the industry as a whole can work with these stakeholders to make the safe excavation process work more efficiently -- and effectively -- for everyone. How can the collective damage prevention industry help locators complete their jobs successfully? Are there processes and practices that need to be reexamined?

Below are some of the core findings and conclusions from CGA’s quantitative survey of a cross-section of U.S. locators working in the field. CGA will publish complete findings from the survey as well as additional research in a Locator White Paper later this year.

Locators’ Wish List: Updated maps, Mandatory White-Lining and Better Communication

When asked what would be most effective in improving likelihood of accurate and on-time locates, there was very broad consensus on locators’ top three asks: updated facility maps, mandatory white-lining and increased communication between the excavator and the locate technician. While these responses are perhaps unsurprising, the near-universal agreement from locators on the efficacy of these measures is telling -- as is their similarity to locators’ biggest challenges. Surveyed locators said their two biggest challenges to completing locates accurately and on-time included that the area to be marked is not clearly defined, and receiving inaccurate or insufficient information from the excavator regarding the jobsite.

White-lining and accurate maps have both been identified as essential to the damage prevention process and are included in CGA’s Best Practices. However, not all stakeholders have embraced these practices, suggesting that increased adoption across all damage prevention industries would help ensure that locators have the best information to complete their critical jobs. As for communication, when asked about their own adherence to safe digging best practices, locators acknowledged that they themselves could also improve the flow of information: 46% said they did not always communicate with on-site excavators or stakeholders, and 31% said they did not always notify one call centers of the status of tickets as required.

Enhance Opportunities for Experience and Training

Locating and marking underground infrastructure is a job that carries a significant workload, requires skill and ingenuity, and benefits greatly from training and experience. CGA’s research found that while eight in 10 locate technicians felt that their daily workload was manageable, those who felt it was not manageable were more likely to have less job experience and fewer training opportunities.

While locate technicians appear to almost universally have access to training -- primarily through their employers -- it seems to occur mostly at the beginning of their careers. Only 20% reported receiving continued education training on a quarterly basis, while 42% said they receive it yearly, 10% received it less than once a year, and 19% said they have never received additional training. These figures indicate that there are significant opportunities to expand locate technician training across technology platforms and stakeholders to improve the accuracy and speed of locates.

Locators are Committed, Accountable Damage Prevention Stakeholders

Most encouragingly, CGA’s survey of U.S. locators found that these technicians are incredibly dedicated to safety and accountability. Virtually all respondents (98%) agreed that locators are very important to the safe digging process and reported being aware of each of the steps in the safe digging process (97-100%). When using a 10-point scale to measure their job performance, locators said completing locates accurately (9.6/10), safely (9.3/10) and on time (9.1/10) are most important to them. A full 97% of locators said that improving the safety of a jobsite through timely and accurate locates was important to them, and 94% said they felt it was important to their companies. The most-cited motivator for accurate and on-time locates for technicians was the safety of those who live and work around the jobsite.

It is important to note that locators are aware of opportunities for improvement: 61% of locators said they believe that late locates occur frequently, and 50% believe inaccurate locates occur frequently. Locate technicians also acknowledge accountability. When asked what they believe is the most common underlying cause of damages when locating issues are indicated, those surveyed pointed to error by the locate technician as the most likely cause.

COMING SOON: CGA’s Locator White Paper

The reality is that the barriers to timely and accurate locates are very complex, and that the damage prevention industry as a whole can do much to support locate technicians in their critical function. In addition to the findings from CGA’s quantitative survey, the national association has also conducted in-depth interviews with additional locating industry representatives to augment the analyses included in the Locator White Paper to be released later this year. As with its Excavator White Paper released in 2019, CGA will provide our 1,700 members with data-informed analysis and recommendations for how all damage prevention stakeholders can work together to improve the speed and accuracy of underground utility locating nationwide.

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