Despite a Rocky Start, Gold Shovel Standard Maintains Ambitious Course

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Fair or unfair, since its inception in 2015, the Gold Shovel Standard (GSS) has raised the eyebrows among contractors who work on underground utilities.

Rick Galyean, GSS executive director, admits that this was never the intention for the program, which was born out of inquiries about a Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) program of the same name. This is where the confusion often starts.

PG&E launched its program in 2014 as an internal program to address contractor dig-ins around its underground gas and electric facilities. In a short amount of time, other owner/operators began inquiring about the program with interest of starting similar programs.

“Shortly after that began to happen, PG&E realized that the power of Gold Shovel wasn’t so much that everyone should set up their own program, but it was that they could have one single North American program through which everyone could operate, resulting in real benefits,” Galyean says. “The problem was finding a non-profit association through which a lot of dissimilar entities could cooperate, and it [this version of the Gold Shovel Standard]got started in mid-2015, put together by Kinder Morgan, Dominion Resources, Xcel Energy and PG&E.”

The North American program’s goal is to be a point of measuring and standardization for all stakeholders — owner/operators, contractors, one-call services and utility locators.

“We are trying to get a single, uniform program that fits for everybody without becoming much of a burden,” Galyean says. “That is a real challenge that has required a lot of artful work and a lot of serious dedication from people.”

GSS is a non-profit organization that provides third-party confirmation of baseline damage prevention safety management systems to protect buried assets, and fair and transparent metrics for damage prevention. The No. 1 goal is a 50 percent reduction over 2015 levels in the frequency of damages in North America on professional excavation sites by the end of 2025.

Achieving that goal takes more than just the owner/operators steering the planning. In the last year, Mike Kemper, executive vice president of Quanta Service Oil & Gas Group; Allen S. Gray, Utility Division and HR director at Carolinas AGC; and most recently Kevin Miller, president, Miller Pipeline, an MVERGE Company, have all joined the GSS board of directors.

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“As I listened to the debate I realized that the end goal for GSS was reducing damages in the field, in part, by developing metrics that could be used by contractors and owners to drive continual improvement in excavation safety,” Miller says. “Within our own company, we already had goals for reducing excavation damages, but there wasn’t a good baseline or consistent way for us to see how we measured up to the rest of the industry. I felt that if GSS could get the metrics right, it would be beneficial for us and other contractors. It just didn’t feel right to fight against this thing where the ultimate goal is to drive us to be better excavators.”

Miller, a former DCA president, admits that when GSS was first rolled out, he was against it like many of his peers, due to the program’s audacious goals and requirements. And if there were not changes made to the program, he would still be against it today.

“I think the DCA and other groups pushing back really caused the GSS board to sit back and realize it jumped out of the gate without understanding all of the issues and without contractor input,” Miller says. “They acknowledged that they screwed up a bit [in the way GSS was presented]and they asked if I would help make this into something that is workable for the industry.”

Early Concerns

Galyean admits that many contractors had concerns about the program early on, but as the GSS program has evolved adjustments have been made to address those concerns.

One of the original concepts was a committee that would review contractors. After talking with several contractors and other experts, the board determined there was no fair way to review contractors and that model was abandoned. Another of the more concerning and confusing aspects of the original GSS plan, the Excavation Incident Calculated Occurrence (EICO) score, has been pulled from the table.

From those candid discussions was born the Contractor Metrics Committee to address the creation of a metrics reporting system. This includes how and who will have access to this info, a point of concern for many contractors.

“There are approximately 15 members on this committee and 75 percent of them are contractors representing some of the largest companies in North America,” Galyean says. Adding another level of significance to the group is that many of the companies represented were those most vocally opposed to the original iteration.

The committee’s goal is to complete the metrics reporting component and present it to the GSS board by September. When asked where the committee is headed, Galyean says it’s too early to say, but he knows the outcome will be fair and transparent.

Why have metrics at all? Galyean says, to make the GSS goal of a 50 percent reduction in dig-ins by 2025 possible, some transparent way to measure stakeholders is necessary. He also assures that similar committees are in the works for the remaining stakeholders mentioned above.

“If we don’t find a way to measure things, we are not going to be able to drive damage rates down. And by things, I mean not just contractor performance, it includes all the stakeholders in the complex damage prevention process,” Galyean says. “If you think about damage prevention at a high level, the absence of an industry-standard metric of any sort is really an obstacle to continuous improvement.”

Damage Prevention Symphony

So, what about the Common Ground Alliance (CGA) and the work it has done to bring the safe digging message to the masses? People who take a cursory look at GSS will see similarities between it and the CGA. Galyean likens the organizations to a symphony orchestra.

CGA’s role, since its inception in 2000, is to identify the best practices from all of the stakeholders in the industry at large, collect them together and publicize those best practices. Secondly, it is to notify and educate the public. And the macro data the CGA compiles on damage prevention trends is critical to set large scale policies

On the other hand, the role of GSS is to check and verify that all parties involved have the policies and procedures necessary to let them operate in a safe way and if they do not, help them implement them. Additionally, it is the standardized measurements for damage prevention both the creation and broad deployment of them.

“The missions of CGA and GSS are in harmony, they do not overlap. They are part of the same orchestra,” Galyean says. “One is the horns section, the other is the percussion section and you can’t get to the crescendo in 2025 unless all of the symphony is playing together, and that requires all of the sections.”
He adds that the 50 percent reduction in damages is not possible without the CGA and other organizations that may come along in the interim. GSS fits in the picture as an organization that fills the gap by creating standardized measurements for damage prevention and verification of policies and procedures.

“GSS really is a type of safety management system for contractors and the CGA’s best practices rolls up into it as one of the tools that can be used to reduce damages,” Miller says.

Concerns Remain

In November 2016, the DCA spearheaded the creation of an ad hoc coalition of contractor associations to address head-on what they saw as growing problems with the GSS. Working with DCA were the Power and Communication Contractors Association (PCCA), American Pipeline Contractors Association (APCA), Associated General Contractors of America and NUCA.

According to lobbyist Eben Wyman, principal of Wyman Associates, which represents the groups, after the initial discussion the groups came back to the table in May to follow up and discuss the next steps and to address what they referred to as “conflicting and incomplete information coming out from (and about) the program.”

“DCA and the other national associations representing excavation contractors in other markets quickly banded together to put together a broad list of concerns about GSS and how its approach does not address the right issues and may even be counterproductive to damage prevention,” Wyman says. “After several discussions with leading GSS organizations, the construction industry seems to have successfully marginalized many of the more harmful problems presented by the program.”

RELATED: Distribution Contractors Association: Concerns Remain About Gold Shovel Standard

Wyman continues, “Construction groups generally agree that while the current state of the GSS program appears to be significantly less harmful than the program rolled out in 2016, the construction industry should remain skeptical and continue to educate people of the detriments of the program to any who will listen.”

In Wyman’s view, the current iteration of the GSS program is a far cry from what was proposed when the program rolled out — a nationwide certification, reporting, monitoring and scoring program for excavation contractors. With its more limited scope, Wyman questions the need for the program at all.

Galyean admits there were communication miscues at the onset of the program, for which he blames some of the misinformation that was out there, and that is why member companies are actively involved in discussing GSS and its changes at a variety of industry forums.

“This is a program structured under the plan, do, check and adjust mentality, so we do a lot of course corrections and if we do something and don’t like the way it is trending, we adjust quickly,” Galyean says. “This is a long and ambitious process, it was never intended to be an overnight thing. It was always intended to be a lengthy process over many years and we are working through the problems one at a time.”

When asked specifically about some of these publicized concerns, Galyean said that the association’s practice is not to go head-to-head publicly with the program’s detractors, instead inviting them to engage in private and regular dialogue about how and where it can make corrections to address concerns.

Measuring All Stakeholders

“Our mission is to help ensure standardized measurements are broadly embraced by all of the stakeholders in the damage prevention process. The stakeholders in this statement are the owner/operators, the one-call system, the locate company and the contractor,” Galyean says. “Each of them are integral in the process for avoiding catastrophic damage and all of them have to do their individual processes correctly in order to make all of this work.”

The problem is that as the industry is configured today, there is wide variability in execution, he says. By creating fair and transparent measurements for all parties it removes the opaqueness that surrounds damage prevention. Transparency about performance has shown countless times, in countless industries, to drive improvements.

Based on the hiccups that have occurred mainly due to miscommunication with stakeholders, when GSS starts to look at creating metrics for locators and the owner/operators, Galyean doubts the organization will jump in as it did with the contractors.

“There is an effort under way to find the right stakeholders, put them together and give them a charter to go to work on the best way to measure this,” Galyean says. “I admit, we did not do that early enough with the contractors.”

To date, 25 owner/operators have signed on to GSS and approximately 1,100 contractors, but that number is ever-changing. Most recently, the City of Sacramento, California, signed on as the first municipality in California to join GSS.

“Our goal as the board of directors is to fix the flaws and get GSS in a workable format so we can move forward and start seeing results,” Miller says. “At the end of the day, when the finished model is done, what you will see are metrics for our industry that we can all measure ourselves against so we can all work towards continual improvement and reducing damages.”

Mike Kezdi is associate editor for North American Oil & Gas Pipelines. He can be reached at mkezdi@benjaminmedia.com.

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