Podcast Episode 47

Call Before You Dig

With Guest:
  • Travis Albers of the Drain Tile Safety Committee, Steering Committee Member

How should we be installing drain tile? Safely. Travis Albers along with other members of the Drain Tile Safety Coalition have made it their goal to make drain tile projects safer. They’re working to reduce drain tile accidents to zero through education, advanced planning tickets and urging farmers and contractors to call 811 before they dig. 

Learn More:

Episode 47 | 26 min

Guest Bio

Travis Albers is a Steering Committee member of the Drain Tile Safety Coalition, a group of safety conscious individuals and organizations with a goal of making drain tile projects safer. 

Travis has a pipeline background and approximately 10 years of experience in the industry which inspired his interest in safety and damage prevention work. He currently works as a Public Awareness Advisor for TC Energy.


Jamie (00:02):

This is The Water Table.

Speaker 2 (00:05):

A chance to hear the agricultural side of these issues.

Jamie (00:09):

A place for people to go find information and education.

Speaker 3 (00:13):

Water management is just going to become even more critical into the future.

Jamie (00:19):

How misunderstood what we do is.

Speaker 2 (00:22):

How to encourage people to open their minds and listen to this dialogue.

Jamie Duininck (00:32):
Well, welcome back to The Water Table podcast. Today, we’re going to be discussing safety, and this is going to be a fun conversation. I think we’re going to try to do a few episodes over the next few months or even this year in 2022, but today I have Travis Albers with me. He’s on the steering committee for the Drain Tile Safety Coalition, and many of our listeners will probably have heard of the Drain Tile Safety Coalition, and maybe not all of you, but Travis, welcome to Te Water Table podcast. I’m glad you’re here and we can talk about how you got involved. I know that you work for TC Energy and Drain Tile isn’t something that was very familiar to you. So let’s talk a little bit about that, but welcome to the podcast.

Travis Albers (01:15):
Yeah. Thank you, Jamie. I really appreciate you letting us be here, giving us a voice to your podcast. We’ve been trying to really get our message out across the country to farmers and agriculturalists. Just to start real quick, the Drain Tile Safety Coalition was born in 2018 out of a very unfortunate incident that took place at the end of 2017 in Dixon, Illinois. You and many of your listeners are probably familiar of that unfortunate incident where a father-son team lost their life in a drain tile project. They didn’t call 811, they struck a high pressure, natural gas pipeline, and a very unfortunate end of that. So the organization, we’re a nonprofit 501(c)(3), a grouping really of safety conscious individuals and organizations, a lot of them being pipeline operators, with a goal to make drain tile projects safer. We really, our mission is to reduce drain tile accidents to zero and through a number of different safety precautions, but particularly the One-Call system. You know it, most of your listeners probably know it, call before you dig. We think that that is a very achievable mission and outcome.

Jamie Duininck (02:31):
Yeah, for sure. And let’s just back up a little bit. You come from the energy industry and whether you’re a pipeline contractor or somebody involved in the pipeline industry, whether you’re a underground utility contractor, some of this stuff to those segments of construction is pretty basic, pretty intuitive. It’s what we’ve always done. We use trench boxes. We call before we dig, we run into things that are very dangerous every day when soil conditions… All of those kind of things. The drain tile industry is a little bit different in its history and past from the standpoint of it’s all done in rural settings, it’s all done a lot of times in agricultural rural settings and so you’re out in the middle of a farm field that might be, 20 miles might be two miles, might be 50 miles from the nearest community. And a lot of times guys just think, “This is a field. What I’m going to run into, if anything is a big rock We’re not going to run into a pipeline or any type of underground utilities, whether it’s fiber optics, whatever it might be.

Jamie Duininck (03:41):
And so the safety standpoint of that hasn’t followed from a history standpoint and it’s much newer. So, people that are listening that aren’t familiar with drain tile and what it is might say, “Well, I am familiar with pipelines or I am familiar with this.” That’s just crazy that they wouldn’t do it, but most of the drain tile that’s installed is installed with a plow, so there’s not an open cut trench. No need for a trench box because you’re not in that scenario. And so from the safe standpoint, it is different in a lot of that. And that is partially why we’ve had challenges over time and had tragic fatality in Illinois and also there’s been others along the way where there’s been issues of maybe not enough people on a job site and something happens or a trench sloughing, all kinds of different things.

Travis Albers (04:37):
You bring up a really interesting point from the safety perspective about the unique nature of drain tiling. We talk about trench boxing, even 150 years ago people weren’t using hard hats like we do now. Now we can’t imagine a world where people wouldn’t wear some of the basic PPE, but there is this kind of… We all have this unfortunate habit or nature to us that when we do something again and again, and I experience this at home. For instance, every time I use my chop saw I put on my glasses, the one time I don’t put on my glasses is probably the time that something’s going to shoot out and hit me in the face.

Travis Albers (05:13):
So, whenever we do something repeatedly, we become lax to it. And when you have something like drain tiling, like you said, a plow is so heavy, it’s such a large piece of equipment. The consequences of that accident are so much greater. And so that’s just the safety message, kind of the repetitious nature of saying it is, is it does need to be second nature. It needs to be unconscious that we know to call 811 as much as we do to use a trench box or put on safety glasses. That should just be ubiquitous across the industry. That’s what we hope at least.

Jamie Duininck (05:48):
Yep. Yep. And for those listeners, we do have a few listeners that are trying to understand what we do and we manage water in agriculture, and what drain tile is when we talk about that, just real quick to review that for some of them, it’s a plastic pipe that’s installed in the ground usually three feet to five feet deep that in the most basic terms just takes the excess water off the soil surface and out of the soil profile. And as we want the most healthy ground to be 50% soil, 25% air and 25% water and that’s what you’ll gain when you have your subsurface drainage in place with drain tile. So, just as people might be listening and wondering, “Well, what is drain tile? What does it do?” There’s a lot more benefits of it. We won’t get into that today. We have on some of the previous episodes of The Water Table if people want to listen to them.

Jamie Duininck (06:44):
But so, you guys started in 2018, out of this tragedy is kind of how you gained purpose in understanding what you wanted to do. How have you gotten your word out? What are you doing to get people an understanding of who you are and why it’s important?

Travis Albers (07:02):
Sure. So we have a kind of multi-channel way of doing this. We live in our modern age so we are utilizing print publications where we have a number of different kinds of advertisements through Farm Bureau publications, drainage contractor magazines, quite a myriad across 11 different states. We also have a large online presence through many of the same kind of print publications duplicated over to media. We also partner with Ag PhD, which is a great DIY kind of organization that probably many of your listeners are likely familiar with. If you want to learn how to do something yourself, we partner with other universities with private contractors, Clark farms out of Indiana. They help provide us kind of a steering direction on where we should go.

Travis Albers (07:58):
We’re also engaged this year, COVID kind of put a damper on, on our, on our relational sort of face to face outreach, but we began partnering with LICA, the Land Improvement Contractors of America. We attended a number of their winter conferences. I had an excellent opportunity to attend… geez, the Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota conferences, where I met some folks that work for Prinsco. I met a lot of different manufacturers, safety companies, equipment companies. I, myself learned a lot. You mentioned about people not knowing about tiling and I grew up in the suburbs of north Houston, just suburban sprawl, so working at my organization, when I first learned about draining, it was very new to me and I very quickly could see that this is a uniquely dangerous, could be, a uniquely dangerous activity if not performed appropriately.

Travis Albers (08:54):
So, it’s good that people come to learn what exactly this is, because it sounds like it’s something that’s very beneficial. We know that it’s increasing, that more farmers are doing this kind of work with their own equipment or renting their own equipment for a number of different reasons, whether it be tax law revisions or improved technologies. So the do-it-yourself farmer may not be as inundated with the kind of safety messaging that perhaps the excavation industry has been year after year. So that’s another just great avenue for our message. Call 811, use an advanced planning safety ticket, things like that.

Jamie Duininck (09:35):
That plays into what you said earlier around repetition and a farmer’s used to do doing all the things they do on their farm operation and usually when a farmer does his own tiling, that happens in the fall after their harvest and after they’re done with everything, which means they’ve been working really hard for a period of time and now they’re tired and they’d come onto this job, which they haven’t done in a repeatable way since the previous fall. And so it’s just different than the guy that shows up to do utility contracting or pipeline work, where they do it every day, all year long and there can be some issues. What have you seen from the standpoint of you’ve been to a lot of shows you’ve been to, like you mentioned, Land Improvement Contractors shows, you’ve talked to a lot of people there, what kind of buy-in or support have you gotten even from individuals or from other coalitions?

Travis Albers (10:36):
Sure. I’ll be quite frank. I mean, the feedback we’ve got, whether it be face to face at the LICA conferences are working with Farm bureaus, Ag PhD, it’s just been incredible. People, they care about the message and they only want to help us. So we have been very fortunate to meet a number of excellent people that want to help our organization get the message out.  What isn’t so widely known is the advanced planning ticket. Most people that I talk to, say at the LICA conferences for instance, were generally unfamiliar with that and that’s something that I really would like to stress particularly today into your audience.

Travis Albers (11:26):
Whatever state you live in, go onto the website, or call 811, ask about an advanced planning design ticket. They’re sometimes called different things in different states but the idea behind that is, just like you said, a farmer goes and they’re doing their kind of real… the bulk of what they probably consider their real work during the spring and in the summer, they get to the fall and they get to this point where they are performing a very different kind of project, perhaps, perhaps it might be different for them. An advanced planning ticket is something that kind of is a little more mature than the 48 business hour notification from a One-Call ticket. This would allow a farmer to take their design, their schematic, maybe if this is a large project and they’re working with a contractor to develop a design of what they’re going to be installing, if they put in a design ticket, the One-Call center will notify all the utilities and basically help facilitate setup a face to face meeting.

Travis Albers (12:26):
And this is really just critical in regards of increasing communication between the farmer and the utility operators. That’s really key and it’s key not just for that project, but the next time they have a project, most of those technicians from a interstate transmission pipeline standpoint, they live and work in those areas. So you’ll keep working with maybe a same sort of crew and develop that relationship and if you have a sort of continual project cycle year after year, you’ll know who to call, you’ll get their card, you’ll know their name and we know that kind of relational friendship that can be built, that really can increase a safety factor because now they care about you doing the job properly and safely as well.

Jamie Duininck (13:08):
A crude example of that is I went to lunch today and I walked in and there was a Diet Coke on the table because I’ve been there before and the waitress knew what I wanted. So, and that’s what-

Travis Albers (13:19):
Well, who knew, maybe a certain time of the year, you’ll walk out in your field and there’s some flags right there.

Jamie Duininck (13:22):
Yeah. Yeah. But that’s what you’re saying is if you have that relationship and you’ve talked to the person, you might get yourself into a situation where something is different than what you planned and you can call them and probably get treated a little bit better, different because of the relationship you’ve built through that advanced planning ticket process, so.

Travis Albers (13:44):
You mentioned earlier, you said three to five feet, as soon as you say that, gosh, I just think, “Man, that’s it.” You said why drain tile can be a uniquely dangerous project because of the depth at which that tile’s being laid. That if somebody were to ask at what depth are pipelines installed, well, they can be three to six feet underground, but many of the pipelines in the nation, they are operating safely and reliably, but some of them are going on six, seven decades in age. The depth of cover we can’t ever assume… it would be very unsafe to assume the depth of that cover. So, because these projects take place at that depth where these transmission pipelines can be, it’s just critical to make that call, because if you start working without doing that, the probability of an accident is very high.

Jamie Duininck (14:35):
Yeah. I was thinking about this a little bit earlier today knowing we were going to have this conversation and trying to think of different scenarios, different examples of what it would be like and I don’t know if I have any good ones, but a lot of times we work in rural, for those people that just think, “Well, this is ridiculous. Why wouldn’t people just call 811?” Well, the reason they wouldn’t is these same farmers, these same contractors, know their area really well. It’s like if we said we can leave our home and our car and drive a quarter mile and close our eyes, we probably could because we’ve done it so many times, but we don’t know when somebody’s going to walk out on the street in front of us or when… And so that’s why we wouldn’t do that and the same is true when you can’t see what’s underneath the ground, you don’t know in every scenario where there is stuff, so.

Travis Albers (15:34):
I’m sure you’re very familiar with this as are many of your listeners, but those pipeline markers don’t necessarily show you the direct path of those pipelines. It can be off 10 feet, 10, 20 feet. And they don’t tell you the depth. So just kind of what you’re saying, do not assume. And I’m sure there’s a lot of pride that goes into knowing your land. I can only imagine. I live on two acres. I like to imagine I have a good understanding of where I live, but what you guys do every day, there’s probably a generational kind of pride that goes into that but those pipelines that have been there sometimes for so many decades, a lot of stuff can change.

Jamie Duininck (16:23):
Yep. Yep. For sure. For sure. And that’s good to know. I actually did not know that those markers aren’t all that accurate at times, so.

Travis Albers (16:32):
They given approximate.

Jamie Duininck (16:34):
Yep. Yep. Yep. Good. Let’s talk a little bit about the tragedy, we started kind of with that, that happened in 2017 in Dixon, Illinois, and what’s come out of that with a short award-winning documentary, you can probably talk about the award-winning part too called Three Seconds Later, but pretty powerful. I’ve had the opportunity to watch that myself. Very well done. Pretty powerful. Just talk about that. Why the documentary, obviously, but you still had to do that documentary and it had to be inspired by something other than just… because there’s a lot of work that went into that, and then just talk a little bit about your thoughts on that.

Travis Albers (17:20):
There’s a lot of organizations that address pipeline safety, Utility, Underground Safety, Common Ground Alliance, Southern Gas Association, lots of things out there, Ag, Pipeline Operator Safety, lot of things like that. But we knew that this group should just address this one specific activity. And when kind of the call went out and a number of companies got together, it appeared that there might be an opportunity to make a film about this incident for the goal being to spread this to the broader agricultural community, to raise awareness. So, the film began filming in 2020, I believe. We really started looking into it in 2019. The company that was used, Petro, did just an absolutely phenomenal job. My heart goes out to that family. God bless. God bless them for willing to go on camera and share their story. I think she says it very well in there, “If it just changes one person’s behavior and one person calls 811, then the effort of that film is worth it.”

Travis Albers (18:33):
As you mentioned, I believe it’s currently won two awards, maybe three. I will probably be corrected about that later, but it’s been put forward in a number of different film festivals, probably at least six to eight different festivals across the country, nominated for a number of different things. But all that aside, it could win a hundred different film awards, but truly if it does make one farmer, if it changes their behavior and they say, “You know what, I think I’m going to call 811. I’ll put off the project one day or I’ll just take that extra effort, make that one call.” And that changes that behavior and somebody goes out there and marks a line, then that is why this documentary, why this film was made.

Travis Albers (19:12):
Like I said, when growing up in the suburbs, I don’t have an agricultural background. So, when this film was being made to me, much of it was very… I don’t want to say academic, but I’m concerned about reducing damages. So I watched the film for the first time and it impacted me more than I thought. The oldest daughter’s name I believe was Madeline and my oldest daughter’s name is Madeline. And it hit me just so fast while I was watching that video there about eight minutes in and I couldn’t help, but think “What if my Madeline…” It became very personal to me, for someone who doesn’t have a lot of relation to this activity, but all of a sudden the safety aspect of it did, and it just really got me even more cemented into our organization and what we’re doing. And I really do believe that the message we have is… it’s a powerful one, it’s a practical one and the end goal potentially could save someone’s life.

Travis Albers (20:15):
So if anyone hasn’t seen it, I recommend they can just go to threesecondslater.org. T-H-R-E-Esecondslater.org. You can Google it and find, it’s online for free to be streamed. It’s in a couple select film festivals currently, but I really would recommend anyone who hasn’t seen that. Check it out at threesecondslater.org. Excellent film.

Jamie Duininck (20:36):
Yeah. I’m glad you stated that. We’ll also have a link on the podcast for people to find it. The film name again is Three Seconds Later. Don’t confuse that with… It’s only 12 minutes long. The name is Three Seconds but it’s only 12 minutes long and we all have 12 minutes. And just to talk a little bit more about that or to share my thoughts on what you said is it really is impactful and I do encourage people to listen to it and, again, this is rooted out of an accident because they didn’t call 811. But I think if we’re open to listening to it, you recognize really quickly how fast your life and loved ones lives can change. And that can happen with… it doesn’t have to be because you made a mistake and didn’t call 811, which is a tragedy, it can be because you were texting and driving or reading emails, or it can be because you were working alone in a situation where you really should have had somebody with you and might have had an issue that wouldn’t have been an issue with another person there.

Jamie Duininck  (21:45):
And so I’d really just encourage people to watch it. I’ve heard too many times in our industry about… I think all of our customers and all farmers care about being safe. I mean, I don’t think there’d be any reason for us to believe any different, but there is a mundaneness about talking about the same thing all the time, “Oh, we have to be safe when we tile. We have to be safe when we’re transporting grain or auguring grain.” There’s numerous accidents over time that have happened with augers and getting hands or arms stuck in augers and losing a limb or fatality, whatever that might be.

Jamie Duininck  (22:25):
The point being, we all know that and we use the same examples always and what this film does is it gives you a different reality. It gives you very well done and I’ve talked to a lot of people about it and I don’t know anybody that hasn’t said, “This is really good for me to see, and I’m either showing it to my crew, or I already have shown it to my crew,” those kind of things, because it’s another way to tell the same story and get people to really stop and think.

Travis Albers (22:58):
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I really hope people watch that and what they take away is truly, drain tile safety call 811 before you dig. Use the advanced planning ticket. It will increase the safety of your project, undoubtedly.

Jamie Duininck (23:16):
You’re a great guest. You probably should, Travis, have your own podcast. I know you said this is the first one you’ve been on, but it’s been fun to talk to you and I think the reason why is you’re passionate about safety and that’s pretty obvious that you have that passion and whatever your passion is in life, if you share it, you’re fun to talk to and fun to listen to. So thank you for those passions.

Travis Albers (23:41):
Well, great. Thank you. I mean, truly we want to see everybody go home. I don’t know the people working out there. We want them to go home just as much as their families want them to go home. This really is a achievable goal. Call 811 and all these accidents very well can be avoided.

Jamie Duininck (23:56):
Yeah. Yep. For sure. So, at The Water Table, we haven’t done this for a while, but when we started doing this, we always kind of had the philosophy we wanted to do The Water Table takeaway and kind of give you the last word. Been fun to talk safety. We’re going to continue to talk to the Drain Tile Safety Coalition in a couple of more episodes but what would you like to leave our listeners with before we part ways?

Travis Albers (24:20):
Yeah, I think the only thing that I’d say that maybe I’d reiterate to some degree would be, again, when we talked about the pipeline markers, don’t assume where the pipeline is. I really have so much respect in the last year that I’ve gone out and met people in your industry. Drain tilers, farmers, contractors in this space, agriculturalists, just the salt of the earth kind of people, just the family kind of feel you get, that I got, at LICA was, was just excellent. And I understand the pride they have for the land that they have and the generations that they’ve been farming and that kind of land. Don’t assume where the pipeline is though, always call 811. It’s just not worth it to assume. So, those pipeline markers work with your utilities. They want to work with you, communicate with them and they will be there to help you. Finally, continue to try to look into these advanced planning tickets. It’s something I really hope more people will begin to utilize. And if you haven’t seen it, check it out at threesecondslater.org.

Jamie Duininck  (25:24):
Yeah. Well, thanks so much, Travis. Before I let you go, you’d mentioned that you… it’s good to have a little fun here on the podcast, but that you grew up in the greater Houston area. So where’d you go to college?

Travis Albers (25:37):
Texas A&M. Ag mechanical school. Yep.

Jamie Duininck (25:39):
I have a senior in high school that’s going to be an Aggie next year coming down from Minnesota, so.

Travis Albers (25:45):
No, that’s great. That’s great. All right. He going to be in the corp?

Jamie Duininck  (25:48):
He is not. He is not at this point, but he’s on the waiting list for the freshman dorm, so at this point, that’s the only way he can get in is if he’s in the corp so he’s thinking about it, but.

Travis Albers (25:58):
That’s how I got in. I had to beg and plead, “Please.”

Jamie Duininck  (26:01):
Yeah. Yeah. Well, hey, thanks so much for your time on The Water Table and for your passion around safety. We really appreciate it and we’ll be talking some more in the future.

Travis Albers (26:12):
Thanks, Jaime. Appreciate it.

Jamie Duininck (26:16):
Thanks for joining us today on The Water Table. You can find us at watertable.ag. Find us on Facebook. You can find us on Twitter and you can also find the podcast on any of your favorite podcast platforms.