Who’s Responsible for Getting Utilities Marked, and When?

This article was published in the 2024 Excavation Safety Guide.

I am writing this from the great State of Louisiana, where I work as the Pipeline Division Director for the Louisiana Office of Conservation. In addition to overseeing our Pipeline Safety Programs, I also am responsible for the implementation of the State’s Damage Prevention Program (as it relates to pipelines). In 2022, I joined the CGA Best Practices Committee as one of the two
NAPSR representatives and have been working with dredging and marine construction companies for years to improve marine safety when working around pipelines. 

Since taking over damage prevention enforcement in 2018, we’ve made progress in Louisiana in both strengthening and enforcing our laws to bring down pipeline damages. In 2022, Louisiana’s damage rate for pipelines was 2.7 damages/1000 tickets, which is down from 3.9 damages/1000 tickets in 2017. Additionally, Louisiana has passed laws requiring white lining, positive response, and potholing along with other minor changes to help clarify the law’s intent. 

But are you aware of the differences in laws from state to state when it comes to the damage prevention of underground utilities? Excavators (and utility operators) need to know and understand the laws in the state where they are working. Excavation laws are established at the state level and therefore, are not always consistent across state lines. Many excavation laws follow the Common Ground Alliances’ Best Practices Guide, but even the guide may allow for deviations or provide a range for a Best Practice. As such, you will find differences in ticket life, tolerance zones, potholing (or daylighting) requirements, mark-by times and other standards commonly found in state “dig laws”. Hopefully this article will help those who work across state lines to operate more safely, efficiently, and in compliance with state laws. Please understand that some of this information could be dated as states update their laws regularly, you must check the laws of the state you are working in. 


Let’s start with “Mark-By” times. You’ve generally heard of the “48-hour rule” for a mark-by-time requirement, but not every state adopted the 48-hour requirement or if they have, implements it in the same way. For instance, in Louisiana, the 48-hours granted to a utility operator to mark their facilities does not include weekends or holidays and the period doesn’t start until 7:00 AM of the next working day. States such as Maine, North Carolina, and Wisconsin along with others have a waiting period of 3 days while Hawaii has a straight 5-day wait period (weekends and holidays included). Some states now allow excavators to choose their mark-by date and the Common Ground Alliance would like to see more states adopt this provision to provide for more efficient ticket management by utility operators. 


How about Tolerance Zones? First, what is a tolerance zone? A tolerance zone does not mean I can’t excavate within the area. Tolerance zones are generally a distance on either side of a mark where a utility may actually be located and the mark is still considered “accurate”. In almost all states 18”-24” is the established tolerance zone. If I dig within that distance from either side of a utility marking, I should find the utility in question, right? Not always, as the distance is measured from the outside of the diameter of the utility. For a 20” pipeline, this means I have to add 10” on either side of the marking and then add the tolerance zone where the pipeline could be located. If the pipeline is located anywhere within that range, the mark is still “accurate”. Now most states require “soft excavation” or nonmechanical excavation within the tolerance zone. Michigan has a 48” “Caution Zone”. Before excavation activities can commence within this zone, pipelines must be exposed using soft excavation methods. More than 80% of states require soft excavation within the lawful tolerance zone. 


How long is my ticket good for? Did you know some states allow for your ticket to be valid for as long as the marks are visible and your work is continuous (MA, MO, PA)? The CGA Best Practices Guide lists 10 days with a maximum of 20 days on a ticket life. The ticket life in most states ranges from 14 days to as much as 60 days, with 14-30 days being the most prevalent. Some states allow for deviations in the established mark by time, generally this can occur if the parties agree to extend the time for a utility to be marked; however, check the state’s laws for whether or not the ticket life has been extended by extending the mark-by time. Just because you agreed to allow for a week to mark, does not necessarily mean the ticket life has been extended the same amount of time. 


So, what’s this all about? We don’t have this requirement in Louisiana, but it’s an interesting one. 16 states require an excavator to make a 2nd request if no response is received from an operator and there are signs of utilities but no markings. For instance, in Connecticut the excavator shall immediately request assistance from the public utility if the excavator has reason to believe there are underground utilities in the designated area, but no markings (16-345-4(c)(8)). While in Tennessee, the excavator shall not proceed until an additional notice is made to the Notification Center (65-31-108(d)). In Georgia, a second request must be made and the operator(s) has until noon of that business day. The excavator may start AFTER that time, provided there is no visible and obvious evidence of the presence of an unmarked facility. I’d say that’s an important law for excavators to be aware of when working in Georgia (25-9-7(e)). 


It is a fairly universal requirement that each excavator at a job site has their own ticket, but four states do not require a separate request (Alaska, Georgia, Maine, and New Hampshire). In Louisiana, the person entering the ticket is allowed to add one excavator to the ticket. 


What do I need to do if I find what I suspect to be an abandoned facility? In many states, nothing at all. But some states have requirements for abandoned facilities, some for the operator and some for the excavator. In Alabama, for instance, if an excavator encounters an unmarked underground facility and attempts a follow-up (or second notice), all operators notified have four hours to contact the excavator with known active and abandoned facilities at the site (37-15-6(a)(40)). In Massachusetts, any facility that has been abandoned or is not in service shall also be marked if it falls within the safety zone of an active facility and shall further be marked to indicate its status as abandoned or not in service (220 CMR 99.606(F)). 

There are other provisions in state dig laws to consider:  

  • What do I do if I damage a utility? 
  • What about preserving marks? 
  • Does the state allow for exemptions from the law? 

We need to remember that these laws are there to ensure the reliability of critical services and for the protection of those working around utilities. Observing all aspects of the law will result in safe and efficient excavation and reduce delays and expenses. Taking shortcuts may seem tempting, but in the long run, they lead to damages, work stoppages, citations, and have negative impacts on worker safety. Let’s all do our part in protecting our underground infrastructure.

Steve Giambrone


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