July 2017 Vol. 72 No. 7


DCA, AGA Joint Workshop Engages New Subjects, Expands Existing Efforts

The Distribution Contractors Association (DCA) and American Gas Association (AGA) held their third annual Utility Contractor Workshop at the Four Seasons Hotel in Chicago on April 18-19. Since the first joint workshop, the event has expanded both in attendance, as well as the scope of issues addressed by industry representatives of local gas utilities, contractors, union representatives, manufacturers and distributors.
While the first workshop, held in spring of 2014, focused on operator qualification, work change procedures and damage prevention, discussions have extended into other areas. Debate over the need for more “OQ (operator qualification)-compliant” workers has led to the question of “who will do the work?” This important topic resulted in new efforts to recruit and retain construction workers in our industry. Discussions about first- and second-party damage prevention has led to extensive presentations about the latest and greatest in horizontal directional drilling (HDD) and other trenchless excavation.

Workshop panels have addressed a range of training issues and featured speakers from both industry and government, and this year’s venue was no different. However, the 2017 workshop did invite attendee participation through breakout sessions, and addressed a controversial new industry program that many feel threatens the cooperative spirit between utilities and their contractors supported by workshops like this one.

Workforce capacity challenges

Continuum Capital kicked off the workshop by providing background on workforce shortages in the gas distribution industry. As veteran workers retire at increasing rates and recruiting efforts struggle to keep up, utility crews are being stretched to capacity, sometimes further. The motivation should be clear: college grads are carrying an average $37,000 in debt often for years, hampering home ownership, capital investments and other fundamentals that make up the American Dream. Meanwhile, the energy construction industry offers strong benefits both in attractive compensation early and a long-term career path for those willing to work hard.

Over the past year, DCA established the Underground Construction Workforce Alliance (UCWA), an industry collaboration of utility staff, contractors and vendors who are attacking workforce development challenges, starting with a pilot project in central Ohio. The first panel included a team of UCWA members who provided a deeper understanding of how these stakeholders can build a common program to collaboratively address workforce challenges in their home markets. The goal is for this workforce “playbook” to be used in other parts of the country.

Participants said the joint team was formed because they all had similar concerns regarding workforce challenges in one way or another. The team effort keeps members in check and allows for close coordination and information sharing. A contractor on the panel maintained that a collaborative effort “will form a solid foundation that will be needed to ensure a successful program, not only to get it started but to maintain it for long- term future success.”

The group has split into a range of subcommittees that cover:

  • Supply/demand/wage forecasting: To evaluate labor pools to see “who is where,” identify what types of workers are needed in certain parts of the country, evaluate wage rates and other factors.
  • Playbook ownership: The DCA Workforce Development Committee supports UCWA and will oversee the development of the playbook, and document changes and progress as it is used in several industry markets.
    Union engagement: To keep labor unions in the loop about the Ohio pilot and provide opportunities to get involved in future collaborative efforts.
    Grant funding: Stakeholders in Ohio are pursuing grant funding through the governor’s office and other sources. Moving forward, the idea is to use local funding to support local job creation.
  • School selection and curriculum development: The initial selection was based on an internet search of a variety of Ohio colleges based on several criteria, including availability of space to allow for an outside construction training “lab,” truck driving training programs to obtain a commercial driver’s license, a variety of construction equipment, and welding and pipefitting programs.

The team is currently evaluating several colleges and trade schools, focusing on program and curriculum development. Local union representation may present opportunities through apprenticeships, which may save time, money and resources by allowing some recruits to “test-out” of new training/testing in some markets. The pilot team is also raising awareness in middle school, high school and other institutions with students who may be interested in construction careers. Women, minority, former military and other audiences are all being considered in this important industry pilot program.

Team leaders indicate that class size will be limited (20-60 people) to allow for hands-on training. The collaborative approach of the Ohio pilot should go a long way to promote cooperation and avoid “trust issues” in recruitment and retention of future workers in the utility construction industry.

Gold Shovel Standard

One of the more highly anticipated discussions regarded the Gold Shovel Standard (GSS), a certification and monitoring program rolled out last year as a nonprofit organization. Many in the excavation contracting industry believe GSS will unnecessarily impose a new layer of training, reporting and information-sharing requirements for contractors, while not addressing the fundamentals of damage prevention. This panel included two utility members of the GSS board of directors and two contractor participants who, along with several hundred contractors, have been forced to participate in GSS as a condition of doing business with certain utility customers.

The GSS program is supposedly going through considerable revision. Unfortunately, contractors were not invited from the beginning to help develop the program, which has led to what many consider overreaching requirements and unworkable metrics, among a range of other problems.
When asked what operators hoped to accomplish through GSS, utilities on the panel said that with an increasing regulatory framework and a rise in second-party excavation hits, a need became apparent for certification of contractors’ safety management systems (SMS) for both excavators and locators. Many OQ providers either could not or would not provide these services, so the GSS approach seemed appropriate.

However, tangible results have been evasive largely because of ongoing problems in developing a workable metric and a resulting lack of data. According to these utilities, more contractors and utilities are needed to belong and participate in the GSS program.

The contractors on the panel, both of which are GSS participants, were asked if they saw any benefit to the GSS approach. Both said their participation in the GSS program was forced as a condition of working for these utilities. One contractor, who serves as DCA’s primary representative on the Common Ground Alliance (CGA) Best Practices Committee, said the GSS program seemed to “fly in the face of everything CGA stands for.” Another contractor believed that the only way an approach like GSS will work is if its scope is limited to a utility and its contractors, and not as a nationwide monitoring and scoring program.

Most contractors have thorough SMS programs in place already and adding another set of reporting requirements seems to many to be a shortsighted approach to improving damage prevention. That said, the utility board members reiterated their commitment to establish a practical metric that the contractor community can buy into.

They also committed to focus on ensuring accurate locates, and agreed that this will take considerable action by the operators themselves. Shifting the attention to contract locators from excavators will not suffice. Operators must recognize their own role in ensuring accurate and timely locating of underground facilities.

A contractor pointed to the need for municipal participation in One-Call to achieve any real damage prevention, with or without the GSS program. Municipal governments operate a wide range of underground facilities, from water and sewer infrastructure to transit systems, traffic signals and other facilities. To date, GSS has a small handful of municipalities that have joined the program.

Comparisons to CGA were briefly discussed on this panel. Many inside and outside CGA circles have commented that it has leveled off in terms of effectiveness. While there have been initiatives within CGA and PHMSA to enhance enforcement of existing damage-prevention laws and regulations, it was clear that GSS is not about enforcing state law.

Currently, contractors are allowed to opt-out of reporting until a realistic metric is developed. While gas distribution continues to be the primary market, others such as broadband, electric and municipals have for the most part declined to join GSS. To many, this begs the question: where is the value and why are gas utilities continuing to push the incomplete GSS program without a workable metric?

DCA OQ Portability Task Force

DCA members continue to be frustrated by the lack of portability of their OQ programs from operator to operator. Last year, DCA created a task force of contractors, OQ providers and regional gas associations to enhance the ability of contractors to utilize their OQ programs among multiple operators. The task force is currently developing a “roadmap” to OQ portability, and several members rolled out initial elements in a panel discussion moderated by the chairman of the task force.

Workshop attendees were reminded of the “80/20” portability concept, which holds that 80 percent of covered task knowledge and performance is the same irrespective of a given operator’s pipeline system, while 20 percent is unique to the operator’s standards and procedures. The task force believes that the 80 percent is fully portable and the supplemental 20 percent will require qualifications specific to the operator’s unique system. Supporters of portability point to the analogous commercial driver’s license (CDL), where those holding them can use these CDL credentials from state to state.

Early in the process, the task force recognized the need to demonstrate strong tangible benefits to the operator. Consistency of OQ processes through training, testing and performance evaluations via a standardized process might reduce “onboarding” time and associated costs. Standardization may increase the labor pool and help address an aging workforce in the industry, and avoid significant loss of industry knowledge base as industry veterans retire. Possibly most important, a more standardized OQ process may enhance regulatory buy-in through an auditable and consistent process.
The “roadmap to portability” includes three tracks related to people, process, and program

People-related elements – Panelists said the task force first looked at the people needed to provide OQ, namely evaluators, trainers, proctors, those involved with considering program effectiveness, and third-party entities. A standard set of credentials is needed for each, including required training, education and experience for each job function. The subject of using in-house or third-party personnel was discussed at length. While there should be flexibility in these choices, it was agreed that a standard set of credentials should be required of both.

Process elements – A fundamental part of the OQ process is identifying covered tasks subject to OQ requirements. The task force agreed to use the ASME B31Q standard and related covered task list as a starting point, and based on a survey of DCA contractors, 65 most-used tasks under B31Q were selected for consideration.

Ensuring a process of evaluating knowledge tests against common core competencies is critical. The integrity of OQ testing has increasingly come into question and setting parameters for written tests is now a critical part of the process. Performance evaluations are also key to the OQ process. Finally, processes related to management of change (MOC), including effective communication of all changes, must be developed. MOC must include appropriate documentation and record keeping.

Program validation elements – The key to program validation is effective record keeping and documentation, and a process for communicating information between OQ providers, operators and contractors is needed to maintain records on qualifications, disqualifications and suspended qualifications, as well as approved trainers, evaluators and proctors.

Internal audits must include a process for regular inspection of OQ records with the goal of continuous improvement in mind. For independent, third-party audits, parameters must be set by the operator or its designee, including frequency of record inspections, and a process for sharing program information and recommendations between the auditor and contractor.

Pipeline safety chief provides insight

Alan Mayberry, associate administrator of pipeline safety at the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), provided a keynote presentation, starting out by commending workshop participants for the work they do and the cooperative spirit that is fostered by industry events like this. Mayberry said that although times are somewhat uncertain with the new Trump Administration and Congress, and conflicting ideas about what exactly their marching orders are, PHMSA continues to work to get remaining rule makings out the door while implementing new initiatives to enhance pipeline safety around the country.

Pointing out that infrastructure growth is a hot topic in the new administration, he said, “We have to make sure it’s done safely – you have a huge role in that.” Mayberry went on to report that gas distribution is the largest pipeline sector under PHMSA jurisdiction, with 2.1 million miles of mains and services, reflecting 80 percent of pipeline miles regulated by the agency.

There is a recurring focus on pipeline SMS, something that Mayberry himself takes very seriously. There is an SMS working group to develop key metrics, with close attention to API 1173, the industry standard that addresses all necessary elements of an effective SMS.

Interestingly, Mayberry pointed to the pending final rule on plastic pipe, noting “That’s a good rule with good things.” Calling it a “deregulatory action,” he said the rule “advances technologies, higher design factor for polyethylene,” and that he hopes it will be finalized this year.

Mayberry elaborated on the importance of SMS, saying it is centered around safety leadership and all levels of a company, fostering and requiring continuous improvement. PHMSA will be looking to operators and contractors to participate in efforts to help enhance SMS in the distribution industry.

Training in today’s distribution market

A diverse panel of operators and contractors, along with equipment, pipe and locating manufacturers, provided a broad demonstration of the many training alternatives in today’s complicated energy market. Training in the gas distribution arena requires state-of-the art technologies, a range of new techniques and programs, and presents many challenges regarding the installation of polyethylene piping, training needs specific to today’s workforce, and impacts of federal and state regulatory initiatives.

Training is conducted to meet several demands, whether regulatory compliance, workplace safety, effective operation of expensive equipment, personnel oversight, and others. Seeing how the oil and natural gas industry added more than 80,000 jobs over 10 years, quality training is more important than ever. Workforce challenges and opportunities in an evolving industry that presents a multitude of energy sources, and a generation of “Millennials” who don’t necessarily respond to traditional training methods, calls for thorough evaluation of all training options available, including:

  • Simulators – Many panelists showed an increasing reliance on simulators, and for good reason. Training in a simulator reduces operating costs, such as fuel and repair costs to broken equipment during training, and provides a good way to confirm new people’s claims that they know what they’re doing. Indeed, contemporary simulators provide “real-life” situations and challenges, and offer a good way to weed out problem candidates up front.
  • Industry Universities – Some panelists offer industry-degree programs to employees, and maintain large customer campuses with state-of-the-art equipment and a wide variety of course options. Academic portions of training can help avoid taking people into the field prematurely, allowing more people to be trained in less time (and money). Universities allow for candidates to become as prepared as possible before entering the critical stage of hands-on, on-the-job training. Certification of instructors is another popular benefit of these universities, where technicians advance their careers by becoming certified. Some of these institutions offer not only online degrees, but retraining options and financial aid for those serious about entering the industry.
  • Industry resources – Many industry associations do not offer training as part of their mission, although many of their member companies do. In order to appeal to young people, organizations are offering online training through social media venues such as YouTube. These options can result in high numbers of views at a very low cost, and offer the ability to communicate in a way the industry has never seen before.

Electronic vs. hard copies of training materials continues to be debated, and demand for some of the more technical training content in writing will always be present. The smart players are continually working to stay updated and meet today’s ever-changing training needs.

HDD risk mitigation

The issue of HDD and many technologies, available training and other related topics has grown in interest since the first workshop only three years ago. A panel of contractors and a GPS technology expert provided a thorough discussion of how workers are prepared to perform HDD functions in the field, and how risks in the field are identified and mitigated as they surface.

The audience was reminded of DCA’s position paper on cross bore mitigation, which was developed a few years ago as a proactive way to describe what contractors do to avoid such situations that sometimes occur during HDD and other trenchless applications. Because they adhere to a range of practices and procedures, contractors are often in the best position to address a cross bore when one is encountered. Utilities and their locators have to do everything possible to locate and mark underground facilities, and all operators, including municipalities, need to belong to their respective One-call center. Sewer mains and laterals, often operated my municipal governments, are often left unlocated and common sources of a dangerous cross bore.

While contractors consider safety to be paramount, there are other motivations for HDD. Including, reduced traffic disruption and increased project efficiency also offer advantages. Evolving technologies are making HDD more effective than ever, both in terms of locating underground facilities and sharing data in real time from the field to the office across multiple locations. Using effective video and graphics, the panel ran through camera inspection, GIS-based mapping, digital job recording and other practices.

As in previous panel discussions on this subject, the importance of training and elaborate onboarding processes were underscored. Contractors are increasingly dealing directly with their customers to ensure workers are appropriately trained to perform all the job functions expected by the operator.


The workshop ended with a moderated wrap-up session where attendees told workshop leaders what they liked and would like to see in the future. Issues such as workforce development, OQ portability and the future of the GSS program all sparked considerable discussion and will likely continue to do so. Attendees suggested panels on SMS, facility locating, how operators can improve their systems and regulatory issues in the new administration would be of interest at future workshops.

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