Improving company culture and combatting complacency have much to do with safety for workers who climb towers as part of their jobs and those who otherwise work on telecommunications sites, according to Benjamin Afton. In his role as safety manager at the telecommunications division of Black & Veatch, Afton spoke at the 2017 Network Infrastructure Forum, a part of the International Telecommunications Expo.
An engineering, procurement, construction and consulting company, Black & Veatch specializes in infrastructure development in telecommunications, power, oil and gas, water, and security. The company has 12,000 employees and $3 billion in annual revenue. The telecommunications division reformed its methods for reducing health and safety risks in the workplace after its chairman and CEO, Steve Edwards, telephoned Afton in 2016 to say worker safety had to improve. Edwards had noticed a trend of an increasing number of on-the-job injuries. What followed was a two-week stand-down of field work while managers and employees met to determine the root causes and to formulate a plan to resolve them.
Positive or Negative Effect
Company culture is a set of shared attitudes, values, goals, or practices that characterize an institution or an organization, Afton said. He said culture may have a positive or a negative effect on safety versus risk-taking, quality of work, employee morale and business productivity. Complacency comes when people get stuck in a comfort zone of repeating what they have always done, whether it is effective or not.
“For safety versus risk-taking, you have to ask yourself whether your employees hesitate to raise safety-related questions because it may effect scheduling, or are they more averse to taking risks?” Afton asked. “Why are they taking risks? Is it because they don’t have the training that they need? Maybe that’s just not a value that they share. But I can tell you that job safety and work quality are tied together.”
Injuries Due to Rework
When Black & Veatch examined the record of injuries from 2014 to 2016, it found that three-fourths occurred on job sites where workers were sent to fix something that wasn’t done adequately the first time. “Had we taken the time to do those jobs the right way, we wouldn’t have sent workers back, and the injuries that happened while they performed rework wouldn’t have happened,” he said.
— Benjamin Afton, safety manager at the telecommunications division of Black & Veatch
In 2016, the Missouri-Kansas market logged a bad year in safety performance for Black & Veatch, Afton said, as measured in the number of injuries considered to be recordable by the U.S. Occupational and Health Administration (OSHA). He said an OSHA recordable injury is one that requires treatment greater than first aid, such as broken bones, concussions and cuts that require stitches.
“In 2015, the telecom division had seven or eight OSHA recordables for the whole year,” Afton said. “In 2016, we had seven or eight by the end of January. We had to stop and think about what we were doing and why, when we’d had pretty good performance in the past, all of a sudden we were now having a rash of incidents. It reached the point a month or two after that when we were having one or two OSHA recordables per week.”
Worker morale began to suffer, and Afton said it was because when injured employees couldn’t do their jobs, other employees had to work more to meet the build schedules. He said there was some anger among those who had to climb towers in place of others, and soon those who were taking their place had injuries and couldn’t climb. “It was a vicious cycle that we got caught up into,” Afton said.
Another two elements of culture that Afton said are tied together are morale and productivity, and this link was reflected as poor morale and more injuries led to a slip in productivity. He said as productivity fell, so did the quality of work. This meant more revisits to sites, which increased the risks. “We had people getting injured because they were unfocused and unmotivated,” he said.
The Missouri-Kansas market had 40 or 50 Black & Veatch craft employees in crews building towers for various carriers. Afton said he received a call from company CEO Edwards, who said: “If we can’t do this work safely and we can’t stop hurting people, then we’re just not going to do it because we might still be making money on it, but we’re not going to be a company that puts people at risk to make a profit.”
Afton said that he was a regional manager for one of the company’s smaller offices when he received the call from the CEO. “The point was made, and it surely motivated me to do something about it,” he said. “What we did was we shut everything down. We told our clients, ‘We have to figure out what’s going on. We’re sorry that we’re not going to meet the schedule, but we have a moral obligation to make sure that we’re not going to continue hurting people and putting people at risk.’ We brought everybody back to our main office and asked them what problems they were having in the field that caused the rash of incidents. We received some good information as we engaged the craft leadership, the foremen on the job sites, the general foremen in the offices and the superintendents.”
The meeting led the company to shed employees who didn’t fit its culture because they had no interest in working in a safe way, Afton said. The rash of incidents coincided with a period of rapid growth in which the region went from two or three crews to upward of 12.
“We did that in such a short time that we didn’t think enough about who we were bringing into the organization,” Afton said. “We didn’t spend enough time with new hires, telling them what our culture was and values were. We changed our hiring practices, including the amount of time we spent and some of the safety training. One of our new training programs is called ‘People Matter Most’ and focuses on avoiding injury. If what it takes to avoid injury will cause problems with the client, so be it, because we just have an obligation to make sure no one is hurt.”
Visible Felt Leadership
A step in the implementation that Afton said he found to be particularly effective was what he called “visible felt leadership.” It started with the phone call Afton received from Edwards, and it continued with operations managers, turf directors, and other higher-ups going with safety and construction managers to jobsites for safety audits and to make sure crews understood it’s not just the regional safety manager checking to be sure crews have fire extinguishers, first aid kits and other equipment, but also that safety has the attention of the company’s top-level people. “That commitment really makes a big difference,” Afton said.
At the time Afton gave his talk on March 27, 2017, he said more than 270 days had elapsed since the stand-down without an OSHA recordable incident, and morale has seen a big increase.
In addition to its craft safety committee, Black & Veatch has a behavior-based safety program used as a tool by craft employees. “When they see somebody on their crew doing something unsafe or making a poor decision, they can anonymously transmit the data regarding that situation to us,” Afton said. “There’s no blame assigned. We want folks to recognize unsafe behaviors and be able to correct them with each other, and then give us the information on what they did about it. We take that to the craft safety committee. Through our organization, we can tailor our training in real time to the types of issues that we’re having in the field, which has been invaluable.”
Employees receive rewards for participating in another program called “Opportunity for Improvement,” which encourages them to submit ideas or processes that would make the job safer. When the company selects an idea to implement, the employee who submitted it receives a reward. Afton said many good suggestions have come from employees participating in the program. “Use your folks in the field, because they have a lot of great information,” he said.
Taking these steps allowed the company culture to go from reactive to proactive, which helps to prevent incidents. Afton said when the culture was reactive, the company spent time investigating incidents, figuring out the who, what, why, where and when. He said by that time that was figured out, another accident would occur because no one was monitoring the other employees.
Afton spoke of another safety concern having to do with driving vehicles. “Driving vehicles is a huge concern because we send employees to tower sites,” he said. “Constructions managers and crews drive anywhere from 500 to 1,500 miles a week. We were having a significant amount of vehicle accidents in which someone could have been seriously injured or killed — 84 in 2014. We cut that in half by placing a vehicle tracker into every vehicle to hold people accountable.”
Records from the vehicle tracker generate a report that scores a driver’s activity from 1 to 5. It tells the driver the score was lowered by activity such as speeding, harsh braking or aggressive turning. If a driver isn’t aware that a particular driving habit increases risk, the company tells that person. “Then, typically, you’ll see those scores improve,” Afton said.
Making Data Available
A key to the telematics program is making sure that the data is available to anyone at any time. The company also sends a monthly report to employees with drivers’ names and scores on it. Everyone who drives a company vehicle sees how their coworkers are doing, and Afton said no one wants to be on the bottom of that list. He said the Missouri-Kansas market went from being the worst to being the best in three months.
Once a company has a safety program in place and achieves improvement, Afton said it is important to find ways to keep the program fresh and avoid complacency. He said giving employees recognition for good safety performance helps them pay continuous attention to the safety program. “They want to be the ones who get the most attaboys,” he said.
The last piece of advice Afton gave was to train, train, and then train some more. He said the telecom industry continually evolves, and there always will be new safety regulations and guidelines from the American National Standards Institute, OSHA and other organizations. Staying current is important because falling behind can have a dire effect.
“Making sure that we keep folks engaged with training and having regular trainings will help to institute the safety culture that you want,” Afton said. “Above all, just don’t get stuck in the comfort zone. If you’re comfortable, you’re in a bad spot.”
Don Bishop is the executive editor of AGL Magazine. He joined AGL Media Group in 2004. He was the founding editor of AGL Magazine, the AGL Bulletin email newsletter (now AGL eDigest) and AGL Small Cell Magazine.
A frequent moderator and host for AGL Conferences, Don writes and otherwise obtains editorial content published in AGL Magazine, AGL eDigest and the AGL Media Group website.
The National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE) will be hosting a Fall Prevention Worker Training Course on Sept. 20, 2017 in Boca Raton, Florida.
NATE offers this training course free of charge and anticipates that the session will achieve the Association’s objectives of having a nation-wide impact and helping small businesses establish a culture of safety and quality. This Fall Prevention Worker Training Course is made possible due to a Susan Harwood Training Grant (SH-29596-SH6) from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, U.S. Department of Labor.
Interested participants in the upcoming Boca Raton, Florida training opportunity are encouraged to access and complete the Fall Prevention Worker Training Course registration form below:
Fall Prevention Worker Training
September 20, 2017
9:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. EDT
Hyatt Place Boca Raton-Downtown
100 E Palmetto Park Road
Boca Raton, Florida
The days of training tower technicians in the field without documenting what skillsets were learned are coming to an end. Centerline Solutions has taken the lead in creating and implementing the first nationwide set of standards and protocols for training wireless technicians through the Telecommunications Industry Registered Apprenticeship Program (TIRAP). And many more companies are in the pipeline to become approved to institute the same apprenticeship program.
TIRAP, which is administered by the Wireless Infrastructure Association, provides a formalized method of training different skillsets coupled with on the job training, all documented by the Department of Labor.
“While Centerline Solutions already offered in-house training, the TIRAP program makes the training a more structured process,” said Clint Cook of Centerline Solutions. “TIRAP addresses the different skillsets within the different positions, and it is a nice way to make sure all the skill sets are covered in training.”
The training gives tower technicians a credential that they can carry with them as a professional anywhere they go to work.
“It raises the bar of professionalism for wireless technicians,” Cook said. “Now, they can display their skills during the hiring process.
In turn, it helps companies with hiring and vendors with selecting contractors. As an employer, Centerline Solutions can be confident that everyone coming out of the program has the same base of information to perform their job.
“Internally, it helps us do a better job of training,” Cook said. “Externally, it helps our customers know that we have good folks. It shows that we are taking the time and investment to really develop our workforce to be the best that it can be.”
The TIRAP program has financial incentives, as well. Centerline Solutions will be able to apply for grant funds from the Department of Labor to offset the training costs.
At the end of a TIRAP apprenticeship program, the training should prepare them well for the different exams given by the National Wireless Safety Alliance (NWSA) to test the competence of the climber. Cook also works directly with the NWSA as the national program instructor, teaching and accrediting the all the practical examiners across the country.
“TIRAP and NWSA work quite well together,” Cook said. “It’s important for those two organizations to dovetail well together, because they address different sides of the same issue.”
The National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE) is now offering a Licensed Design Professional membership category. The NATE Licensed Design Professional membership category, effective immediately, is a membership category dedicated specifically to individuals who provide engineering and design services to the wireless and broadcast tower industry.
“The new Licensed Design Professional membership category will allow NATE to bridge the gap between the design community and construction community during a time of explosive growth in wireless infrastructure deployment activities across the globe,” stated NATE Board of Directors member Bryan Lee from Hellertown, Pennsylvania.
Dues for the new membership category are $500 annually and are available for individuals only. As part of the membership application process, the Licensed Design Professional is required to submit their Professional License stamp on the NATE Membership Application in the designated area of the form.
“The establishment of the individual Licensed Design Professional membership category will help create a prominent platform and voice from the design community directly to NATE at a time when industry standards continue to play a more significant role in enhancing safety and quality,” stated Member Services Committee Chairwoman Jordyn Miller from Gulfport, Mississippi. “Through the addition of this new membership category, NATE is once again demonstrating that our membership encompasses the entire wireless communications tower ecosystem,” added Miller.
National Association of Tower Erector’s (NATE) Wireless Industry Network (WIN) has unveiled the speaker line-up and agenda for the NATE WIN Great Plains Regional Conference on Wednesday, September 27 at the Embassy Suites by Hilton in Bloomington, Minnesota.
The conference will feature dynamic speakers and informative sessions on cutting-edge industry topics. The event will also offer tremendous networking and professional development opportunities for attendees.
Minnesota State Representative and Assistant House Majority Leader Marion O’Neill will deliver an opening keynote address at the event entitled Preparing Minnesota for a 5G Future. Representative O’Neill played an instrumental role as the House Sponsor of the Minnesota Small Cell Deployment law that was passed during the most recent legislative session. The Minnesota Small Cell Deployment law streamlines the process for wireless infrastructure deployment and investment in the state and positions Minnesota to be a leader in the 5G economy.
Marion O’Neill is serving her third term in the Minnesota House of Representatives. She represents District 29B in Wright County which includes Maple Lake, Buffalo and Monticello.
In addition to O’Neill, the NATE WIN Great Plains Regional Conference agenda will feature the following sessions and speakers:
Great Plains Regional Conference attendees will also be eligible for the event’s grant prize drawing to win four tickets to the Minnesota Vikings vs. Baltimore Ravens NFL football game on October 22, 2017. Conference registration also includes breakfast and lunch. Visit HERE to review the official Great Plains Regional Conference agenda.
“We are thrilled to host the upcoming Great Plains Regional Conference in the Twin Cities,” stated NATE WIN Director Scott Krouse. “Companies in the upper Midwest encompass the entire wireless ecosystem and play a prominent role in delivering the networks and related infrastructure we have all come to demand,” added Krouse.
“I am excited that NATE’s Wireless Industry Network is coming to the land of 10,000 lakes and we plan to roll out the red carpet to ensure that all conference attendees have an enjoyable experience,” said WIN Minnesota State Liaison Justin Gillette from Vertical Limit Construction, LLC.
The cost to attend the NATE WIN Great Plains Regional Conference is $75 per person. Interested attendees are encouraged to register for the conference by completing the Registration Form on the NATE WIN website.
All completed registration forms and payments should be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org or mailed to the NATE office (8 Second Street SE; Watertown, SD 57201) by the registration deadline of Friday, September 15, 2017.
Click HERE to become a Sponsor for the NATE WIN Great Plains Regional Conference! Current sponsors for the event include Sioux Falls Tower & Communications, Meridian Blue Construction, LLC, Vertical Limit Construction LLC, Tower One Inc and Tower Systems, Inc.