In light of the 13 deaths in 2013 and four deaths so far this year, OSHA has sent a letter to tower industry employers, imploring them to follow procedures for keeping tower climbers safe. The letter said that penalties would be increased for OSHA rule violations and that investigations would look harder at multi-company sites where the rules are violated.
“OSHA has found that a high proportion of these incidents occurred because of a lack of fall protection: either employers are not providing appropriate fall protection to employees, or they are not ensuring that their employees use fall protection properly,” wrote David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health. “It is imperative that the cell tower industry take steps immediately to address this pressing issue: no worker should risk death for a paycheck.”
The National Association of Tower Erectors collaborated with OSHA on the letter, distributing it to its membership.
“Both NATE and OSHA have the same goals in terms of advocating for workplace safety and ensuring that workers in our industry are able to go home safely each and every night,” said Todd Schlekeway, NATE executive director.
Jocko Vermillion, vice president tower safety, Safety Controls Technology, told AGL Link that he is “glad to see OSHA recognizing there is a problem and stepping up its enforcement.”
Vermillion is a tower safety specialist and OSHA trainer for Safety Controls Technology, who spent 10 years working as a national tower expert with OSHA. Now that he is in the private sector Vermillion works with tower companies to improve their safety programs, making sure they follow OSHA standards.
OSHA is increasing penalties by categorizing all citations as “willful violations of a standard,” which is the highest violation below a criminal charge. Vermillion, who is often hired to consult companies that have been cited by OSHA for safety violations, said he didn’t believe that most companies willfully disregard the fall protection standard.
“The good thing about that is it requires the compliance officer do a more thorough investigation,” he said. “I think the results of the more thorough investigations will prove that companies are better than we think they are.”
Cell tower construction is notorious for multiple levels of subcontractors and a lack of accountability of those contractors that hire the subcontractors. Michaels promised enforcement against subcontractors that break the rules under the Occupation Safety and Health Act, but also those companies that employ them.
Michaels wrote, “During inspections, OSHA will be paying particular attention to contract oversight issues, and will obtain contracts in order to identify not only the company performing work on the tower, but the tower owner, carrier and other responsible parties in the contracting chain.”
Vermillion applauded Michaels’ effort to go up the chain of command and make companies accountable for the subcontractors they hire, but doubted that increased enforcement would lead to increased citations. “OSHA’s power is weak. I don’t think they are going to be able to uphold a lot of the violations that they do issue. It is difficult when there is a contract signed by both companies. Additionally, the burden of proof of the violation is on OSHA,” he said.
However, once a company gets a citation, whether it can successfully defend it or not, it will increase the culture of safety there, according to Vermillion. “A company that gets a citation always becomes a better company, because they learn what did wrong and then they fix it by stepping up their safety program,” he said.
It has become an altogether too common story. A welder working on a cell tower accidently ignites the insulation and the structure goes up in smoke. Most recently, sparks from a welder caused a fire, Jan. 6, on a Crown Castle cell tower in Brownsville, Texas. No injuries were reported.
Cell tower fires are a safety concern being addressed by the National Association of Tower Erectors, which convened the Telecommunications Industry Safety Summit in late October 2013 in Dallas. The Wireless Industry Safety Task Force, which grew out of the summit, is addressing skills-based training such as welding, such as welding. “There is a tremendous need for skills-based training. Those skills are being taught out there in certain circumstances, but the industry is so much more sophisticated now,” Todd Schlekeway, NATE executive director, told AGL Link. “CAD [exothermic] welding training comes up quite often in our discussions to increase safety and will certainly be a part of the work that the task force dives into.”
There were at least two tower fires reported last year that led to high-level drama. Thankfully, no fatalities resulted.
Last August, two tower workers escaped injury when the structure they were working on caught fire, Aug. 20, in Sanford, Fla. The crew was reportedly performing welding on the 127-foot tower when cabling caught fire. As the welder attempted to come down the structure, the bucket that was carrying him became stuck. He got out and rappelled while another man climbed down the tower.
In June, a 118-foot cell tower owned by AT&T exploded into flames and thick black smoke in Bensalem, Penn., after sparks from a welder got into the insulation on the cables igniting a fire that quickly moved 10 feet above and below them. The crew, which was subcontracted to put steps in at about 80 feet off the ground, attempted to put out the blaze with fire extinguishers but failed, so they rappelled down the tower as the flames spread.
Tower techs may use an exothermic process to make electrical connections to ground a tower, a process in which temperatures are generated in excess of 1,650 degrees Fahrenheit.
Top safety and operations executives representing the wireless carriers, tower owners, OEMs and turnkey/construction management firms met with officials from the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE) at the Telecommunications Industry Safety Summit, late in October, in Dallas to examine leading indicators that compromise safety, and collaborate on best practice solutions.
The goal of the event was to bring the industry together to talk about the trends, the root causes and develop some mutually agreed upon goals to make the industry safer, according to Todd Schlekeway, NATE executive director.
“Topics that were discussed at length included developing more consistent pre-hiring practices, a consistent process for vetting contractors and subcontractors and standardized safety programs. This would raise the bar and make sure that everyone is more in tune with a higher level of safety conscience,” he said.
Bringing all factions of the industry together at the safety summit was an important step because each company, on its own, can only do so much to improve their safety culture, according to Martin Travers, president, Telecommunications, Black & Veatch.
“We have come to the conclusion that the best way to improve the safety performance on our projects would be to encourage improvement of the safety performance of the whole industry, because so many of us employ tiers of subcontracts that are often interchangeable, from the program managers and the prime contractors, Travers said.
“There needs to be a guiding set of principles with regard to safe tower construction that are accepted practices so that the industry will be consistent in its application,” he added.
Meeting participants agreed to work together to achieve sustainable safety improvements, forming the Wireless Industry Safety Taskforce with 27 members that will explore ways to meet the objectives outlined at the summit.
“What was really encouraging about the summit was a very strong common understanding and acceptance that the proposed process made sense and they wanted to participate. It was easy to come to a consensus regarding what should be done and how it should be done,” Travers said.
Companies represented at the Telecommunications Industry Safety Summit included: Alcatel Lucent, American Tower, AT&T, Bechtel, Black & Veatch, Crown Castle, Ericsson, General Dynamics, Goodman Networks, Jacobs Telecommunications, Mastec Network Solutions, Motorola Solutions, Nokia Network Solutions, SAI Communications, Samsung Telecommunications America, SDT Network Services, SBA, Sprint, U.S. Cellular, Velocitel, Verizon Wireless and WesTower.
At the AGL Conference in Boston, Nov. 5, the National Association of Tower Erectors announced the availability of the NATE EXCHANGE, and online platform for tower construction and maintenance companies and individual tower technicians to gain access to the training courses tailor to the needs of the tower industry. NATE member companies will qualify for discounted rates on designated training courses offered on this exchange portal. The EXCHANGE includes profiles of the companies providing the training, NATE member discounts, evaluation forms and user-posted reviews. Course categories include confined space, electrical, equipment/vehicle operations, fall protection and rescue, first aid/CPR/AED, gin pole, hoist, ladder/scaffolding, OSHA 10-hour and 30-hour, RF awareness, rigging/signal person, rope, and AM detuning. natehome.com
Pat Cipov, president of Cipov Enterprises, Sumter, S.C., has been named chairwoman of the National Association of Tower Erectors. She replaces Jim Coleman who is stepping down as Association’s chairman after assuming new responsibilities as senior vice president of the new organization resulting from the merger between Sabre and Midwestern Underground Technology Inc. She offered up her thoughts on her career and her goals at NATE in an interview with AGL Bulletin’s Editor J. Sharpe Smith.
Congratulations on your appointment as the first woman chair of NATE.
I am truly humbled and honored to serve NATE in any way I can and look forward to continuing to work hard every day to ensure that safety remains the top priority in the industry. NATE is fortunate to have women serving in leadership roles on our standing committees and at the board level.
Tell me about your career and why tower safety has become important to you?
I began to work in the tower industry in 1978 when I joined my brother’s company in Sumter, South Carolina, just east of Columbia. I have done it all. I have worked in the field, climbing towers. I graduated to being the hoist operator and then when our business became stable enough, I graduated to working only in the office. We build and maintain communications towers for utilities, emergency services and Motorola Service Shops. We have very good customers, some of whom we have had since 1978.
Our company, Cipov Enterprises, is a small company (as are many NATE member companies) with 10 employees. We opted against doing cell tower work so we could remain small, in order to maintain our commitment to our customers and stand behind our work.
When Cipov Enterprises started, we had no formal training in safety. I first learned of “safety” and industry best practices when I started getting involved with NATE. I have continued my quest for knowledge every day since. Learning about industry safety never ends. It is an ongoing process.
What would you like to accomplish as chairwoman of NATE?
I will continue the efforts of our association to create a culture of safety throughout the industry. This includes continuing to establish and strengthen relationships and our ongoing dialogue with all stakeholders involved in our diverse industry; including the tower owners, wireless carriers, equipment manufacturers, engineers, public safety officials and utility providers. This also includes continuing to work with NATE member companies and their elevated workers to ensure that they have access to the appropriate safety resources in order to ensure that work is being conducted in a safe manner on tower sites.
Education and training are important to developing safety awareness. How is the association getting the word out?
Individually and collectively, NATE continues to seize any and all opportunities to foster a culture of safety throughout the industry. For example, NATE has increased its presence at industry trade shows and state wireless association events in order to get our safety message out to a diverse group of industry stakeholders. Conversations via all outlets must be repeated over and over. The message cannot be communicated just once.
The association is also in the process of developing an online website feature called the NATE Exchange. The NATE Exchange will be a convenient, consumer-driven “one stop shop” platform for tower construction companies to gain access to the most sophisticated and up to date training courses offered by training companies in the industry. We are excited about this project and feel that it will enhance the return on investment of a NATE membership.
What is the philosophy behind the new name of the NATE UNITE conference? How will it be different from previous conferences?
NATE has done a great job through the years hosting one of the premier conferences and expositions in the broadcast and telecommunications tower industry. This year, the Association made the decision to re-brand the show from a marketing and promotional standpoint. The NATE UNITE name and theme reflects both the strong bond that NATE members share and the association’s continued efforts in seeking to bring all of the industry stakeholders (tower construction firms, wireless carriers, tower owners, public safety officials, utility companies and equipment manufacturers, etc) together in one location to promote safety, participate in educational panel sessions and provide exhibiting and networking opportunities.
We are very excited about the upcoming NATE UNITE 2014 Conference, Feb. 24-27, in San Diego, Calif. The association is currently in the process of finalizing the schedule and we are excited about some of the new program offerings and events that will be held at the gathering.
Do you have any plans for further developing your relationship with OSHA?
NATE continues to work with OSHA. The association’s Legislative and Regulatory Committee meets with officials from OSHA in Washington, D.C. on a quarterly basis. NATE once had a national partnership with OSHA, which ultimately was not renewed in 2009. NATE proceeded by creating our own internal Star Initiative Program to fill the void of the lost partnership. There are many NATE members that choose to go above and beyond the requisite level of safety requirements and the minimum OSHA requirements. The STAR Initiative allows members the opportunity to demonstrate a higher level of commitment to achieving a safe work environment within their respective companies.