The news concerning tower worker fatalities has been bad. Ten tower techs have lost their lives so far this year. While it is critical to highlight these deaths and to look for answers, it is also important to note that many in the industry devote their lives to keeping tower climbers safe.
SBA Communications has worked with a lot of tower climbers over the years, developing communication sites for wireless service providers for more than 20 years and owning and operating tower sites itself for more than 10 years. SBA also manages communication sites on behalf of third-party landlords, and its operations and services teams interact with wireless carriers providing services throughout the full life cycle of site and tower development.
The tower company takes its safety record seriously, said David Sams, director of Risk and Quality Management, who oversees the health and safety program and quality management for SBA. He has been with SBA for 13 years and has developed all the programs currently in place. He said that from the top of the company on down safety has always been a priority.
“We consider ourselves a leader in tower safety in the industry. We consistently focus on it,” Sams said. “We have strict policies and procedures in place not just for our service contractors, but we expect it to be adhered to by anyone who enters an SBA tower site.”
Investing in Safety
SBA doesn’t just pay lip service to safety. It commits half a million dollars a year to tower safety, including personnel salaries and free tower training seminars. Four safety managers and two safety technicians are spread out across the country. They do audits that cover SBA’s employees, its contractors or anyone else that is on the tower.
SBA is a member of the National Association of Tower Erectors. “We want to make sure that any one of our employees who climbs a tower or anyone who climbs on our behalf is competent and qualified. The first thing we do is check their qualification card to tell if they have been trained in fall protection,” Sams said.
Site Audits Prevent Accidents
SBA requires workers on its sites to fill out checklists for wearing a safety harness, helicopter lift, controlled descent, and health and safety. The company also requires a pre-work assessment survey that must be completed on the site before work begins, as well as critical lift permits, personnel hoisting permits and daily excavation inspections.
“One of the important facets of our program is our safety forms. You must give detailed information on where you are. That is important in case there is an accident. What type of work are you doing? What types of precautions are you taking?” Sams said.
SBA’s safety managers are required to complete 200 site audits a year among them. Each audit includes questions from an OSHA perspective, such as housekeeping, electrical issues and fall protection. Sams has found carriers to be receptive to SBA’s safety efforts.
“When we do site audits of our tower assets of any carrier that is on our site, if there is a safety issue, especially related to fall equipment, we have had zero problems with contacting the carriers about fixing the problem. They are very appreciative of it,” he said.
The entire industry benefits from SBA’s efforts. Contractors that are qualified under SBA Network Services mostly likely also work for turf vendors or for the other tower companies or carriers or any combination of them.
Taking Tower Training to New Heights
In 2001, SBA petitioned OSHA to adopt its tower class and tailor it to the wireless industry, so now it teaches a seminar that features a day and half of classroom safety training for the wireless industry free of charge to any contractor that works for it. It will train 400 people by the end of this year. They will learn how SBA ensures safety on its sites. Additionally, SBA teaches a two-day tower-rescue course, which takes place on the side of one of its towers.
There is suspicion that the speed at which LTE is being rolled out is bringing pressure on the tower crews to speed up the process of mounting the new antennas and building the towers. If that pressure is there, it should be taken in stride, according to Sams.
“When you are working at the heights that we do in this industry, time is not an issue,” he said. “We consistently preach that if you take the time to inspect your safety equipment, take the time to do it right, take the time to find the right connection points, and take the time to hear that life-saving click [of a tie-off], you’ll go home that night. It’s all about taking your time.”
Sams said the upsurge in tower fatalities may be the result of the increasing number of new companies coming into the industry that may not have the proper training or the proper equipment to work at those heights.
“I pay a lot of attention to the fatalities and the ones that I have inspected have been the result of human error,” he said. “For some reason they decide not to hook to the tower and make a misstep and 250 feet later they are lying on the ground.
“Anyone who does tower rescue training like we do will tell you there are no second chances in this industry. That is why we have a stringent vendor management process in place where we qualify our vendors and subcontractors,” Sams added.