GUEST OPINION By Dr. Bridgett Hester…
When I established the Hubble Foundation, I jumped in headlong. I wanted to create a foundation to advocate for the tower climbers in the wireless infrastructure industry, and especially for the families of the climbers who perished. I knew very little and was not sure exactly what I was doing, but I did know a couple things for certain. First, I wanted to be the climber advocate — no hesitation, no questions. I was just going to do it and learn as I went along. Second, I needed to know what they did for a living, not in theory, in practice. After 18 months of getting organized, making contacts, granting scholarships, sending a climber to instructors school, helping stranded climbers, writing grants, answering emails, making and receiving endless phone calls, and a few nights of crying about new fatalities, I was ready. I needed to get myself Comtrained. I told myself I could not advocate to the best of my ability unless I took the class, donned a harness and climbed a tower myself.
My late husband Jonce Hubble had done this for a living. He died doing the job, and I thought I knew what I was getting myself into. Wrong. For those of us who are more suited for office work or academia, putting on a harness, even with no tools, and using pelican hooks to climb a broadcast tower is a bit intimidating, to say the least. I endured heat, sweat, cumbersome equipment and my own nerves. This is nothing compared with what these men and women face every day. However, I can assure you that those minor conditions alone were sufficient enough to confirm that I am not a tower climber in any form or fashion. However, I did obtain the understanding I was searching for, which, in the end, will make me a better advocate.
After the Comtrain class, I was well-equipped, I knew the basics, I knew I could rescue someone if I needed to do so, I could tie some knots, and I could be 100 percent at all times. I knew how to keep myself safe. I knew the basics. The class was great, the instructors and people were fabulous, and the material overwhelming. Knowing the information and actually using that information to execute the job are two completely different animals. In the midst of climbing, I was simply astounded by the information I had to keep in the forefront of my brain while trying to get myself up the tower and rescue someone. I was concentrating so hard on calming myself a few times, I was not paying attention to the Y-lanyard being under my arm, my gate on the pelican hook not facing the right way, or getting myself wrapped in the descent line. These things were pointed out to me as I climbed, and I corrected the situation.
I tried to place myself in the mindset that I was really on the job, that I was really going to be rescued because I had made a mistake or had an accident, and that I was really going to rescue my current husband (we took the class together). While climbing, I realized that the sheer amount of information I had to remember was immense, immediate, and could make the difference between life and death. If I would have had to actually rescue my husband, it wouldn’t have been pretty. He probably would have ended up having a femoral blood clot or problems with his breathing from hanging in the harness too long. I wasn’t fast enough, I wasn’t fluid enough, and I just wasn’t comfortable enough yet physically or mentally. It was daunting. Anyone who has never climbed for a living, who gets trained only in the basics, and who states they aren’t nervous (or at least apprehensive) or states they are fully capable of handling any situation, is either a liar or an overconfident employee who will end up getting one of your crew killed.
Do I believe that there are people who have never been in the business but nevertheless are naturally gifted climbers with no fear of heights, with no problem working in any kind of weather, and who are physically able to attend to the duties of the job? Absolutely. Do I also believe that those same people should be (at a bare minimum) nervous about scaling a structure and having to possibly be responsible for another human being if the need should arise? I think they had better be. If they aren’t, you have a potential problem. This job attracts a certain personality and with that comes a responsibility for the employer to ensure that the employees they hire are not only capable, but that they are also truly cognizant of the hazards and the safety protocol. The employers are responsible for making sure that those employees are willing and capable of understanding that their lives and the lives of others depend on their exercise of good judgment and the solid execution of what they have learned.
Both of my trainers (I trained twice) were very quick to tell me that the training is basic. Once you take the basic course, there remain years’ worth of jobs, situations and additional training courses that need to be completed before anyone can ever truly be considered to be experienced. You don’t take just anybody, throw him in a harness, run him through climber basic training, and then send him up the tower. It is likely that those who handle the business end of telecommunications, and maybe that includes you, have never put on a harness, climbed a tower and braved the elements (weather, bird feces, bird attacks, hideous deadlines, rain, sleet, snow and angry dogs). I understand that it’s not your cup of tea. Trust me, it’s not mine, either.
However, I would recommend that every employee of any telecommunications company, wireless carriers included, take basic climber training. Unless you understand your climbers and what they actually do, you don’t understand your business. It really is that simple.
Since I have jumped into the advocacy role, I have heard accounts and I have spoken to the climbers involved in which newly trained, green climbers, fresh from a training facility, were loaded into a truck, sent off to a jobsite, and told to “Get it done.” Newly trained climbers are being sent out with only other green hands on-site, or worse, sent out alone.
The question I have when I hear this is, “What in the world is wrong with their employers?” In their infinite wisdom, the employers have decided that since the climber has passed a basic training course, they are fit to be sent up a tower to perform tasks for which they have zero practical experience. I can technically climb now. Big deal. That hardly qualifies me to scale a tower and install an antenna. I understand on-the-job training. It’s indispensable, but to send someone to do a job right from training without being accompanied by seasoned climbers or, worse yet, alone, is not only irresponsible, but unconscionable. They are going to get someone killed, and ultimately, that will be on your head. Just because you sent your brand new men and women to a basic training course — listen to me — does not make them tower hands. Period.
About the author:
Bridgette Hester, Ph.D., is a family and workplace strategist. She is the founder and president of the Hubble Foundation, which is dedicated to promoting the safety of tower workers, site crews and green energy turbine climbers. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jonce Hubble and the Hubble Foundation
On July 22, 2010, Jonce Hubble, 41, died of injuries sustained when a 300-foot tower collapsed after a bucket truck collided with the tower’s guy wires. His co-worker, Barry Sloan, 37, also died of injuries sustained when the tower fell. They were at the 40-foot level, climbing down. Bridgette Hester was Hubble’s wife. She is the founder and president of the Hubble Foundation, which is dedicated to promoting the safety of tower workers, site crews and green energy turbine climbers. The Hubble Foundation website is at www.hubblefoundation.org.
This article originally ran in the November issue of AGL magazine.