The Value Of Accident Documentation

Accidental damage to underground utilities continues to occur with disappointing frequency, despite programs implemented by the Common Ground Alliance and ongoing efforts of utility owners and operators, One-Call organizations and other groups with a stake in protecting buried facilities.

By definition, an accident is unexpected. Hitting buried pipe or cable during excavation may be anything from cutting a residential telephone line that can cause inconvenience and downtime, to striking a high-pressure gas line that can lead to a major disaster possibly causing injury, death and extensive property damage.

Fortunately, most utility hits are not life threatening. But no matter how minor, an investigation will follow and an attempt made to fix blame. Utility hits can disrupt service and result in damage claims for lost revenue. Costly litigation likely will follow with legal costs even for those not at fault. Insurance rates and bonding costs may increase, and if OSHA violations are found, fines levied.

Therefore, it is important that the crew foremen and supervisors know what to do if an accident does occur and gather accurate information about exactly what happened.

“It is critical to gather clear, concise information and photos when performing a damage investigation,” says Ron Peterson, president, Utility Consulting Professionals Inc. “The investigator should collect data in an effort to tell the story of the incident to someone that will most likely never be at the site. With the cost of damages on the rise, a quality damage investigation can save the company hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

The results of an investigation should include written details, photographs and video footage, if appropriate. Good photos are essential.

Statement critical
Peterson said information that should be gathered includes statements from witnesses, crew members and utility representatives. If subcontractors were involved, statements from their personnel are also necessary.

Record the number of utility people that were on site and how many were actually involved in the project.

Accidents can be similar, but each is unique. How much documentation is needed varies with each incident. A typical incident requires statements from witnesses, crew members, locators and utility representatives.

A specific file should be created for incident documents.

“Have witnesses write and sign statements,” advises Peterson. “Statements should be specific to conditions seen on the job site. Date and time are important. Include the witnesses in photos and video tape. Crew members should write out statements in their own words, stating specifically what they were doing at the time of the incident, and sign the statement. Pictures should document the presence at the site of crew members providing statements.”

Supplement this information with simple sketches and drawings.

If accuracy of existing utility locates is an issue, sketches and photos taken during the locating process and names of locator representatives involved should be included in the file, along with records and photos of any potholing. (For more about documenting preliminary planning steps that can be important for future accident investigations, see the January issue of Underground Construction.)

Incident information needs to be organized and accessible.

Company management should develop a form for gathering necessary data and a system for archiving all documentation. Forms available include the CGA Dirt form, NULCA investigation form or any other form that prompts the investigator to ask the right questions. The form should be approved by the firm’s attorney. A spreadsheet or other program can track downtime damage claims.

“Track all employee work time from the time of damage, including straight time, overtime and double time,” advises Peterson. “Log equipment time and additional equipment necessary because of damage. Additional materials needed because of the damage also should be documented.”

Photos key
Peterson adds that downtime claims now are supported by case law in many parts of the country. These decisions have professionals responsible for information provided to others. Four recent court decisions support this section.

Photos are a key element in incident files. “A picture is worth a thousand words and can be worth thousands — or tens or hundreds of thousands — of dollars,” says Peterson. “It is impossible to take too many photos. Tell a story with photographs. Show the entire work location, and then move in closer toward the damage. Get detailed pictures of the damage from different camera locations. Get people in pictures: witnesses, company personnel, utility representatives, locators and get shots of their vehicles.”

Use the same process with video as with still photography, Peterson continues. “As the video camera records the scene, talk about what is being seen, and the camera’s sound will record the narrative,” he says. “Don’t express opinions, stick to the facts of what is pictured. Record statements of witnesses, crew and utility representatives, and show their vehicles in the video.”

For both photos and videos, the camera’s date and time stamp function should be activated so there is no doubt about when the images were captured. Peterson says a common mistake when gathering photographic and video evidence is failing to show the location of the damage in relation to other reference points at the location, especially the flags or paint that marked the route of the utility. Failing to show an overall view of the site before moving in for close-ups of the damage also is a frequent mistake.

Often local news reporters show up shortly after an accident. This is a critical time, says Peterson. Interaction with the news media needs to be managed. A contracting company needs a single media contact at the site. Other personnel should not talk to members of the press. The “wrong” answers could have serious consequences later (see sidebar for details and suggestions).

Gathering accurate information on site immediately after an accident that damages utilities is the starting point for preparing a comprehensive file on the incident. Management and legal counsel will analyze the information along with other evidence and research regulations and laws to determine liability issues, if any, and be prepared to respond to question raised by other parties involved.

The goal is to resolve disputes, claims and avoid litigation.

“The party with the best documentation usually prevails in disputes and wins the case if a lawsuit can’t be avoided. A quality investigation will effectively tell the story of the incident. While it may prove the excavator was not at fault, it may also help to provide excellent information if they are at fault and save needless litigation. By knowing what went wrong, the company can put processes in place to prevent future damage.”

Peterson has 17 years industry locating experience, eight with a utility claims department, two as an insurance adjustor and seven years as a utility contractor. He is a member of the Common Ground Alliance and National Utility Contractors Locating Association and has been an expert witness in numerous utility damage lawsuits.

Common Ground Alliance, (703) 836 1709,
National Utility Locating Contractors Association, (888) 685-2246,

A Variety Of Cameras

The digital age has simplified photographing construction sites, including pictures to document accident investigations.

Compact digital cameras produce quality images without the use of film which must be processed and prints made from the negatives or slides. With most cameras, it is possible to instantly view the picture just taken; if it doesn’t clearly show what needs to be seen, another can be immediately snapped.

Many smart phones have cameras that produce images of acceptable quality.

Many phones and compact cameras can take both still photos and record videos with sound. Professional single-lens reflex digital cameras with zoom lenses are available at reasonable prices. Compact video cameras record picture and sound on digital tape for uploading on a computer. “Throw-away” cameras with built-in flash that use conventional film still are available.

Having a camera and someone who knows how to use it on every job site is important.

“Know your camera,” advises Ron Peterson, president, Utility Consulting Professionals, Inc. “Know how many shots your camera will hold,” says Peterson. “What is the closest distance the camera can be from an object? How far does its flash reach? How many shots will a digital camera hold? Is the date and time feature activated and correctly set?”

Digital cameras record images on a card, and cards are available with different capacities. The number of shots the card will hold also depends on the camera’s setting. Highest resolution setting uses more space than the medium or low setting.

Generally the medium setting is the best providing the largest number of quality photos before space is used up.

Compact point-and-shoot digital cameras have automatic focus, but there is a limit to how close the camera can be to the subject and be in sharp focus. Cameras with a macro setting can take closer close ups.

Be sure batteries in cameras are fresh and spares are readily available.

With smart phones and combination still/video cameras, know if the camera has sound capability for the video and whether there is a limit on the length of video the device can record. Also, remember that photos and videos require large chunks of space on a smart phones system.

No matter the type of camera and video device used, it’s important to get the photos and videos off the device and onto a laptop or office computer and properly identified and filed.

Dealing With the Press

Utility hits often receive the attention of the news media.

Mobile television news crews, equipped with police scanners in their vehicles, are interested in accidents where there are injuries reported or involve fires or disruption of traffic and neighborhoods. Flames or water shooting in the air and flooding streets make compelling pictures on the evening news.

The first responsibility of construction personnel following an incident is to protect the public safety, then to assist in gathering information about what happened.

“Never suggest cause or responsibility,” says Ron Peterson, president, Utility Consulting Professionals, Inc. “”I don’t know,’ or ‘I don’t have that information,’ are acceptable answers to reporters’ questions.”

In news reports, statements can be taken out of context or portions of comments can be used that can change the meaning of what was said.

Indeed, a good answer to any request for information at the site is: “The incident is under investigation and that information is not available.” That’s usually the answer given by law enforcement officers, fire fighters and other emergency personnel.

Each company or organization involved should have one designated person to meet with the press. Other personnel should be directed to not answer questions.

If an organization has a public relations or corporate communications staff member, that person should be the press contact for information in the days after the incident.

Share information with D.I.R.T.

The Damage Information Reporting Tool (DIRT) Program gathers and analyzes information about accidental damage to underground infrastructure and has developed a growing database about root causes of utility incidents.

The program was initiated by the Common Ground Alliance (CGA), a member-driven association dedicated to reducing damages to all underground facilities in North America through shared responsibility among all stakeholders.

“Participation in DIRT is important,” says Ron Peterson, president, Utility Consulting Professionals, Inc. “Information submitted is confidential and is used only to help identify root causes of damage to facilities to assist in programs that will help reduce future incidents. This is valuable information that we need to share.”

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