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AdobeStock 405713693 SMWhen it comes to underground utilities, safety and damage prevention are the ultimate goals. In 2020, the industry was forced to contend with a new risk: the COVID-19 pandemic.

The damage prevention industry has responded nimbly, adjusting day-to-day operations and implementing protocols that help flatten the curve and limit the spread. Part of that “new normal” requires changes in how locators, facility operators and excavators address Meet tickets.

Meet tickets allow excavators and facility operators/locators to meet to go over excavation plans in person and agree to a custom locate schedule. Normally, all parties would physically meet at the excavation site and document the plan on paper. In the face of a pandemic where physical contact needs to be minimized, Meet tickets can be more challenging—but they are still essential to keeping people and property safe, especially when it comes to complex or difficult-to-define excavation sites and projects.

The pandemic has not slowed down excavation. In fact, Gopher State One Call saw a significant year-over-year increase in incoming ticket volume during March and April 2020, and May 2020 numbers were right on par with May 2019. Eric Kolcinski, a senior damage prevention coordinator at CenterPoint Energy, says that CenterPoint saw a steady stream of locate requests in the spring, including Meet tickets. Even before the pandemic, Kolcinski notes that his team encouraged Meet tickets in order to improve communication. They’ve continued to do so and a year into COVID-19, they’ve learned a lot.

Be Prepared to Do Things Differently

Since many locators already tend to use their trucks as their offices, working “remotely” wasn’t a new concept when Minnesota’s stay-at-home order began in spring 2020. However, once on the excavation site, the Meet ticket process does look different now.

Rather than discouraging Meets when COVID-19 hit, CenterPoint ensured that its locators in the field stayed safe and followed CDC guidelines. The company issued personal protective equipment for locators to keep in their trucks, such as hand sanitizer and multiple masks, “so they always have a mask that meets the requirements.” Kolcinski explains.

“We didn't limit people. We didn't say, ‘Don't go to these Meets; do this by phone.’ We just made sure that people were staying far enough away—mostly situational awareness and keeping updated on whatever the state and CDC guidelines were,” says Kolcinski, who has worked both as a locator and a state manager for a locate company in the past, and currently serves as the interim president of the Metropolitan Utility Coordinating Committee in addition to his role at CenterPoint.

While Kolcinski has not participated in any virtual Meets, there are certain cases where a Meet ticket may be facilitated via virtual methods such as FaceTime or Zoom.

Gopher State One Call COO Barb Cederberg notes that virtual Meets typically weren’t done in the damage prevention industry before the pandemic, but are now becoming commonplace as people become more accustomed to virtual communication. A virtual Meet is a “great way to still have a Meet and ensure that communication on projects takes place,” she says.

There are some situations, for example in remote areas where wireless connectivity is bad, where an in-person Meet is still the best option. “That's the great advantage of the Meet,” Kolcinski says. “You're looking at somebody and they can show you the project—and that [in-person contact] is still essential.”

If you do need to have an in-person Meet, follow these recommendations to stay safe and healthy:

Cover Your Face and Keep Your Distance

Cederberg points out that if you are holding a meet in person, all parties should follow CDC guidance, including wearing a mask and maintaining social distancing (even when outside). All participants should follow their workplace’s and/or Minnesota Department of Health protocol if they do become symptomatic or are exposed to COVID-19.

Kolcinski says that initially, he noticed some locators were hesitant to wear masks. But by the middle of the summer, “we really started seeing people standing apart and wearing masks when they were in the Meets.” (Some of that increase likely can be chalked up to Minnesotans growing accustomed to these new practices; Governor Walz’s executive order requiring masks in indoor businesses and public spaces went into effect July 25.)

Kolcinski also notes that some of the contract locators that CenterPoint works with helped encourage compliance among their teams by supplying masks or gaiters printed with a company logo, and by adopting company policies requiring face coverings during in-person meetings.

Keep Digital Records When Possible

An important component of Meet tickets is documentation: Once all parties have agreed on a plan of action, it is recorded and signed by the excavator and locator or facility operator. In Minnesota, excavators are legally required to keep the documentation—often a carbon copy “Meet sheet”—on file, however, locators and facility operators may opt to keep records as well.

“Typically, we ask for really detailed Meet sheets because that cuts down on damages and increases good communication,” Kolcinski explains. But with social distancing, standing in close proximity and sharing paper and writing utensils isn’t exactly a best practice. “So now instead of handing somebody a pen and having them fill it in [while] standing in a little huddle, sometimes we are entering a digital Meet sheet where they’re typing it in on a touch pad.”

Even when paper Meet sheets are used, such as in areas where Wi-Fi is unreliable or devices aren’t available (after all, Kolcinski notes, carbon copies don’t require batteries), a text or email confirmation of details could serve as a virtual signature or confirmation in order to avoid unnecessary close contact.

Another bonus to keeping digital records? It’s less likely they’ll be lost or damaged, and miscommunications will be minimized. “There’s a lot of communication between excavators and locators that has come after those Meets on texts threads and things like that; we’ve started to see some of that communication happen digitally anyway,” Kolcinski explains. “So [digital Meet sheets] just put a bit of an exclamation point on that.” Also, if a locator is out sick or gets stuck at another job site, other team members can more easily jump in to help if they have access to digital records.

As new information and recommendations come to light, it’s important for everyone working in the industry, especially those who participate in Meet tickets, to stay informed about the latest health guidelines. For example, says Kolcinski, CenterPoint has built an ongoing COVID conversation into its safety discussions to keep everyone apprised of hygiene and mask usage recommendations and any other pandemic-related news.

While the way Meet tickets are done looks quite a bit different from a year ago, the end goal is still the same: safe, productive work.

“We're really lucky that business didn't take a hit [in 2020],” Kolcinski says. “I think a lot of people were kind of scared and we weren't quite sure what was going to happen. And even though they had to stand a little bit farther apart and needed to jump through a couple of extra hoops, we saw an increase in tickets. We saw a lot of work last year and that's a good thing.”

Read more about when to file a Meet ticket vs. a Normal ticket here.

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