Call before you dig to check for utilities and prepare to wait a long time, contractors say

A staggering amount of work and a shortage of experts doing it mean the promise of quick, free utility location services by a government agency and its subcontractors is a thing of the past.

It could take months for a worker to check for any dangerous underground infrastucture

There are massive delays to get locates, the result of checking for underground infrastructure, before construction or small projects, leading to frustration by homeowners and contractors. (Supplied by Ontario One Call )

Andrea Loewen Nair wanted a fence around the air conditioning unit at the medical office where she works in London, Ont., so doctors and patients don't have to suffer in stifling hot rooms — the previous AC unit was damaged by thieves who stole copper. 

But to install the fence, her contractor needs to dig a hole. In Ontario, you first must get someone to ensure you won't hit anything important underground. The province says the process is supposed to happen within five days, but Loewen Nair's contractor waited two months for someone to come out. 

"I keep getting the same excuse: 'COVID delays, COVID delays.' What does that even mean?" she told CBC News earlier this week.

Locates are documents and ground markings that identify underground infrastructure for work crews and are done by trained technicians. It's taking longer to get them in Ontario, costing people time and money. There are worries people may just dig without the proper paperwork. 

"I used to be able to get locates within a couple of weeks, and now it's months out, which is dangerous because people might just start digging themselves without it," said Graham Henning, a general contractor and owner of ProQuo Contracting in London, Ont. 

"It's a free service, and the idea is that whatever work you're doing, you are doing it safely. Anything you put in — fences, decks — you have to dig and you have to get a locate." 

Will Dinnin of Dinnin Construction also said. "It's definitely taking longer than it used to. 

"It's dangerous and it's frustrating because you have everything else lined up, you're ready to go, and there's nothing in the way other than no one is coming to the site to do the locate." 

Many projects, few people

Jason Mayer, general manager at GTeI, which has offices across the province and provides locating and field-survey services, said there's a boom in construction in Ontario, including for large infrastructure projects, but a shortage of utility locators. 

GTel is trying to hire more people and improve the technology it uses to make the locates faster and easier to do, he said.

"Our team continues to operate as all hands on deck. While some employees continue to work overtime to minimize service delays, everyone from our utility locators to senior management is pitching to reduce the backlog and complete locate requests as quickly as possible."

Any time construction is done, underground infrastructure has to be secured. (Wendy Bird/CBC)

Ontario One Call is the agency that individuals — from homeowners wanting to plant a tree, to those wanting to put in a fence, general contractors and homebuilders — go through to get locates. 

"We're a one-stop communication channel," said Ian Simpson, spokesperson for Ontario One Call.

Those unhappy with how long a locate is taking can also file a complaint with the agency. 

Utilities contract out the locates to companies such as GTel, said Simpson.

"If there's a late locate happening, you can reach out to the utility themselves, or if that doesn't work, you can file a complaint through us. Legally, it's the utility that's responsible." 

We do not want any incident to happen. It's against the law to dig without a locate​​​​​​.​- Ian Simpson, Ontario One Call

Recent changes should help speed up how quickly locates can be done, or at least how long they last so they don't expire before a project can start.

"We do not want any incident to happen. It's against the law to dig without a locate," said Simpson. 

Jared Zaifman, president of the London Homebuilders Association, said getting locates has been slow and has been impacting construction projects. 

"Time is money and money is time, and people are trying to line everything up as best they can," he said. "It's a huge problem if you have equipment sitting at a site and you're waiting for the locate to come in. There are certainly labour challenges right now." 

As for Loewen Nair, she got the locates done on the medical clinic where she works after CBC News began calling GTel for answers. 


Kate Dubinski


Kate Dubinski is a radio and digital reporter with CBC News in London, Ont. You can email her at