If your work involves excavating, grading, digging, or trenching, you’re probably familiar with the potential risk of hitting utility lines. And when that happens, the result is an underground utility claim (or cut cable claim). In fact, Builders Mutual has had over 400 such claims since 2020. Although there is coverage for these claims, the experts at Builders Mutual want to help you prevent these all-too-frequent incidents. Tyler Abbott, claims trainer, and Ben Ruffin, commercial claims manager, share their insights on the best practices to avoid loss.

Stay between the lines

The same buried infrastructure that creates a picturesque (and wireless) community can cause substantial problems when those underground gas, electric, cable, and phone lines are damaged. But there is a simple process to follow that eliminates most of the risk to contractors who need to dig or excavate.

1. Make a call before you dig.  Before a person or machine removes the first scoop of dirt, the first step is to call in a locate ticket. Most states have an easy way to contact the utility notification center—North Carolina contractors, for example, can simply dial 811. The contractor gives the information about the excavation, and the center provides it to the utility. Then, you’ll either be notified that there is “no conflict,” or locators will be dispatched to mark the location of underground utilities within two to three days. Timelines differ from state to state, but utilities typically have 48-72 hours to respond. It’s also important to know your state’s notice period, because the life of a locate ticket is limited, usually to around 12-15 days. So, if your project is to take 30 days, for instance, you’ll need to put in for two tickets to finish the job properly.

It may seem to go without saying, but be sure to report the exact location of your project’s dig or excavation. There have been cases where a contractor called in the ticket and was provided a “no conflict” result, only to hit and damage cable lines because they gave an incorrect address. And, from the fault perspective, if you have the wrong address on the ticket, it’s like excavating without a ticket at all.

2. Be sure to space out. Once the locator company marks the lines, contractors are required to hand dig for 18 to 24 inches before excavation, because the depth and/or breadth of the lines could have been affected by erosion, tree roots, etc. Each state has a specific tolerance zone that needs to be followed, typically half of the known width of the line (or “facility”). If the line is 4 inches, then the tolerance zone is 2 inches + 24 inches on either side. Hand digging outside the tolerance zone is a necessary precaution prior to diving into the job at hand. 

3. Document, document, document! Even if you perfectly follow all the steps to avoid utility lines, there is still a chance lines may be cut. So, after you call for a locate ticket, it’s vital to document your excavation/digging process. First, take photos or video of the locator marks. Then, create a chalk line to indicate the zone where you will be digging, and document that by photos and/or video. You can even record the hand digging at the appropriate measurements. This way, if a line is hit, you will have clear evidence that you were not at fault for the incident, despite what the utility may claim. Your photographic documentation can prove that the negligence was on the part of the locating company—not your crew. Moreover, if a line is hit (for whatever reason), always stop and take photos and video of the incident.

4. Quickly report any incident. When any utility line is hit, it’s important to contact your carrier as soon as possible, so the claim can be thoroughly investigated in a timely manner. Your insurance carrier can do a site inspection, for instance, to help build a defense from day one. They will have to wait for an actual invoice from the utility or a subrogation company (similar to collection agency) to take action, but claim preparations can definitely be made in advance. 

For example, a Builders Mutual-insured client contacted us after a cable cut, and we were able to review the damage before the line was repaired. Because an engineer could assess the situation early on, when the utility company claimed the line had to be replaced and not repaired, the engineer’s report greatly helped the case.

We’re here for you.

Builders Mutual is a construction industry expert—it’s all we do. Our customers can rely on us to assist them in underground utility claims, whether a case is settled or goes to litigation. Your role is to follow the steps above, then it’s up to Builders Mutual to investigate and move your claim forward. There are times when an incident is small—as is the bill—and paying it is preferred to submitting a claim. Even when this is the case, the experts at Builders Mutual can help evaluate the invoice to be sure all the fees are legitimate and necessary, possibly reducing your payment. 

To learn more about preventing underground utility claims or to improve the overall safety on your job-site, contact a Builders Mutual Risk Management Consultant.