Jan. 8, 2015 — As 2014 drew to a close, we were saddened to hear of another tower climber fatality, the 12th in so many months. Allen Lee Cotton, a 44-year-old tower climber, fell to his death from a cell tower in the middle of December in Greeneville, South Carolina.
He was working with two other climbers for Central USA Wireless, Cincinnati, at the time, but neither saw the incident occur. OSHA is investigating the incident.
Earlier in December, firefighters performed a high-angle rescue on a tower climber who had slipped off a platform and was hanging by his safety harness 150 feet off the ground. The rescue took 30 minutes to perform.
This year brought an amazing amount of attention to the safety of tower workers. It all began with a letter to the industry in February from OSHA through NATE to tower service companies, imploring the tower industry to increase its vigilance concerning safety. The agency also promised increased penalties for companies that knowingly ignored the safety of their climbers. In September, OSHA would make good on that threat with fining Wireless Horizon $134,400 for two willful and four serious safety violations for an incident that killed two cell tower workers in 2013.
The importance of tower climber safety increased in visibility at the FCC, as well. The agency examined ways to prevent future deaths of cell tower workers at the day-long Workshop on Tower Climber Safety and Injury Prevention on Oct. 15 in Washington, D.C.
Later in October, the FCC teamed with the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration to launch an apprenticeship program for telecommunications tower technicians, the Telecommunications Industry Registered Apprenticeship Program (TIRAP), which partners the government and industry stakeholders to promote safety and education in the telecommunications workforce.
TIRAP will work in concert with ongoing safety efforts, such as one by the National Association of Tower Erectors’ Wireless Industry Safety Taskforce (WIST), formed in 2013 to develop a standard for best practices for sustainable safety training.
Also in October, the Department of Labor announced a $3.25 million grant to create a college-based template for wireless infrastructure job training at Virginia State University, Petersburg, Virginia. The grant, which was written in concert with PCIA – the Wireless Infrastructure Association, allow VSU to strengthen a new program aimed at building a network of colleges to train students for high-skilled careers in wireless infrastructure, and the association will assist in managing the program.
Warriors 4 Wireless was launched to develop training and certification programs with educational institutions, such as Aiken Technical College, and industry partners, such as Grey Wolves Telecom, aimed at employing veterans of the nation’s military.
The focus was not only on the preventing tragedies. A major effort was commenced to support families whose loved ones become casualties while climbing. The Tower Industry Family Support Charitable Foundation was launched in September by the wireless industry with the lead of the National Association Tower Erectors through a joint donation of $400,000 from ClearTalk Wireless, a flat-rate wireless service provider, and the law firm of Fletcher, Heald and Hildreth.
But even with well-meaning letters, speeches and committee meetings, cell towers proved to be no less dangerous in 2014. Tragedy met young and old alike. For example, Joel Metz, a 28-year-old father of four, was decapitated on July 2, in a Metz, while replacing a boom at a tower site in Harrison County, Kentucky. Thomas Lucas, 49, fell 80 feet on Aug. 10, while painting a tower in Jo Daviess County, Illinois. Chad Louis Weller, 21, was working on communications equipment located atop of the 180-foot water tower, March 19, in Pasadena, Maryland. Just to name a few. The dozen climbers that died was just one fewer than the year before.
In the New Year, expect the industry, and AGL Media Group, to redouble our efforts to promote tower safety. More people joined the conversation on tower safety in 2014 than ever before, but it is up to the industry to follow through with safety training standards and increased educational options to ensure competent tower climbers. But, most important, the industry cannot tolerate businesses that use low-cost, poorly trained tower workers.
J. Sharpe Smith is the editor of AGL Link and AGL Small Cell Link.
The numbers tell a grim story. Climber fatalities last year totaled 13. So far in 2014, six tower techs have already lost their lives. OSHA has put carriers and turf contractors on notice that it will include them in its efforts to address culpability when tower climbers of subcontractors suffer accidents in the future.
Sprint, which is in the middle of the multibillion dollar rollout of Network Vision, has seen its share of tragedy with climbers dying at four of its sites in the last year. This week, Sprint Network responded to safety concerns by hiring an auditing company, PICS Auditing, to enhance its supply chain risk management, implementing qualification and supplier audit services.
“Supply chain management is crucial to Sprint,” said Jared Smith, PICS’ chief operating officer. “PICS’ supplier audit program will play a key role in the company’s efforts to pre-screen and audit their suppliers.”
As with all carriers, Sprint uses a multilayered system of contractors to deploy its wireless technology in the field. However, carriers, in general, have been criticized for not taking responsibility for the safety procedures of their contractors and subcontractors.
“After poring over thousands of documents, we discovered a complex web of subcontracting that has allowed the major carriers to avoid scrutiny when accidents happen,” said Martin Smith, a producer for Frontline, during an investigative program that aired in 2012.
A contractor prequalification company, PICS works to ensure that suppliers are qualified to work in a safe manner by screening suppliers, verifying insurance and performing risk-based audits on contractors.
The PICS platform will provide added insight into supply chain activities. Contractor data is collected and tracked, which is then integrated into performance management software.
Sprint is also a member of the Wireless Industry Safety Task Force begun by the National Association of Tower Erectors, along with the other major carriers. NATE Executive Director Todd Schlekeway applauded Sprint’s move. NATE has resources such as the Qualified Contractors Evaluation Checklist that it provides for its members.
“A fly-by-night operation coming into the industry because of the insatiable workforce needs will not make it through the screening process when it comes to PICS,” Schlekeway said. “This is another way to vet contractors and make sure that qualified contractors are gaining work on all the carrier buildouts.”
Motorola has used PICS for several years for auditing contractors, according to Schlekeway, but Sprint is the first of the carriers to use the firm.
“We have been talking for years about the importance of vetting contractors to make sure their employees are adequately trained and they are experienced to handle the scope of work,” Schlekeway said. “This could establish a trend toward third-party auditors. It will be interesting to see if the other carriers go in this direction.”
Based on a reevaluation of the evidence and other factors in the case, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has reduced the number and severity of its citations and the accompanying fines against Pinpoint Towers for an incident in 2013, which resulted in a tower climber fatality.
In the final report, Pinpoint Services was found to have two “other than serious” citations and was fined $7,000 for each citation. Both of these fines were paid.
Originally, the tower company was fined $21,000 and cited with three serious safety violations after a worker died from a fall from a cell tower in November 2013 in Wichita, Kansas. The company subsequently contested the citations before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.
The 25-year-old worker was performing maintenance when he fell 50 feet while descending from the tower.
In February 2014, OSHA and the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE) sent a letter to all communications tower employers urging compliance with safety standards after 13 climbers died in 2013. The letter said, “OSHA will consider issuing willful citations, in appropriate cases, for a failure to provide and use fall protection.” The agency also promised to pay attention to contract oversight issues.
OSHA has also created a new Web page targeting the safety issues surrounding communication tower work. It can be found at www.osha.gov/doc/topics/communicationtower/index.html.
By Craig Snyder…
Recently I was contemplating what the attributes are that make a good tower worker. Good tower workers have intelligence, social and mechanical skills, and a respect for and not a fear of heights.
They also can cope with long periods away from home. And when I use the word “good” in describing a tower worker, I also mean great or excellent. At our office, the subject of what attributes make a good tower worker came up in conversation when we discussed the demands that the telecommunications network build out places on tower companies.
In response to these demands, a few large companies have chosen to grow their in-house tower crews rapidly. The acronym TCAP (tower crew augmentation program) has been used to describe the effort to quickly ramp up a tower crew while maintaining or improving the quality of work and, I would assume, safety on the job. TCAPs make me wonder whether it is possible to have such rapid crew expansion without some sacrifice in quality or safety, and if so, how it could be done.
I reflected on how it is with our tower crews at Sioux Falls Tower. During our 25 years in business, we’ve evolved in the way we do things. It’s not easy building good tower crews. I’d like to think we found some secrets to success through experience. I’m proud of our crews. They are exceptionally productive. They meet high standards for quality of work. They have been loss-time injury-free for many years, and individual workers stay with us for what I consider to be a long time. And best of all, they are great people.
Quality of the Worker
The very best tower workers seem to possess the five attributes I mentioned at the outset. Take away any one of these attributes and the quality of the worker begins to taper quickly, and there is a strong likelihood they either will not be hired or will not last long as an employee. (Attention lady tower workers: I say ”he” in what follows for simplicity in reading. The same attributes apply to both women and men.)
Intellect: A good tower worker is smart. He’s a thinker, not just a doer. He doesn’t have to be schooled or have academic degrees, but he is intelligent. Intelligence lends itself well to common sense. He can figure things out without a lot of guidance. Out of the gate, he doesn’t make dumb mistakes.
Social IQ: Living with a crew for days or weeks at a time requires the ability to get along. A good tower worker knows when to talk and when to be quiet. He’s a good communicator. He can read people and respond appropriately in any given setting. He’s a friend even to those with whom it is hard to get along, including customers. He’s never belligerent, he uses appropriate language, and he does not abuse substances, including drugs and alcohol.
Heights: Typically one of the first things we ask applicants is whether they have a fear of heights. The desired response is something like, “I can’t wait to get up there!” A good tower worker respects heights and protects himself against the danger of falling, but he does not fear being up high. In fact, he is the one on the crew that would give up his spot on the ground any day for a spot on the tower.
Mechanical: Having innate mechanical skills is pretty important in tower work. This is not a job that comes with a lot of on-the-job learning time. Tower workers are busy enough with the physical exertion of climbing and keeping themselves protected from falls without having to learn how to use tools once they get up there. To make it in tower work, a new employee either needs to have mechanical experience or needs to be a quick study with a rope, wrench, tape measure and knife.
Travel: The second most common question asked of job applicants usually pertains to their ability to travel and be away from home for long periods. A good tower worker enjoys the traveling crew lifestyle. This attribute is possibly the most tricky to find, because even if he possesses all four of the other attributes, he can’t do this job if he can’t travel. I’ve watched some of the best applicants walk out the door because they knew that being away from home wouldn’t work for them.
So if you agree that finding people with these attributes is key, can the industry ramp up to meet the present and future demands and still maintain quality and safety? From personal experience, I believe it will be a challenge, especially for those who want to do it quickly. I believe that if it is possible, it will have to come from hiring individuals that possess the five attributes mentioned. Harvesting them from the workforce and then training them takes time. The industry would do well to exercise some patience in the process.
Craig Snyder is president of Sioux Falls Tower & Communications and a past chairman of both the National Association of Tower Erectors and the tower standard writing committee TIA 222.
Last week, during the National Association of Tower Erectors annual conference, the associations Wireless Industry Safety Task Force launched what it calls a 100% Tie-Off 24/7 Awareness Campaign. The objective is to ensure that technicians who climb telecommunications towers as part of their work are tethered to those towers at all times for protection against injury should they fall. “One hundred percent tie-off is the law and needs to be strictly emphasized and adhered to at all times,” said Pat Cipov, NATE’s chairwoman, in a prepared statement.
Sonya Roshek, a task force member who works for tower builder Black & Veatch, said that one of the early issues identified as a result of the task force’s collaborative efforts is the fact that many of the tower-site accidents that compromise safety involve situations where the tower technician was not properly tied-off to the structure.
“We believe strongly that everyone involved in the industry has a role to play when it comes to emphasizing 100 percent tie-off in order to ensure a safer work environment and prevent future accidents,” she said.
Speaking to an audience at the NATE Unite 2014 conference, Todd Schlekeway, the association’s executive director, said that the campaign will include the filming of public service announcements, paid advertising, earned media efforts, a social media component and collaboration with state wireless associations.
David Michaels, U.S. assistant secretary of labor and the head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, delivered a keynote speech via video recording to viewers at a NATE Unite luncheon. “In 2013, more communications tower workers were killed than in the previous two years combined,” Michaels said. “In the first few weeks of 2014, we have already seen four more fatalities.”
The OSHA chief said that most of the fatalities are due to falls. “We found that many of the workers who are killed were wearing harnesses that were not tied off,” he said. “Employers are responsible for training workers and ensuring that their tower crews are consistently protected. By reinforcing their own safety policies, by training, and retraining workers, and by making sure subcontractors follow all safety rules, employers can create a culture of safety.”
Michaels said OSHA has instructed its field staff to pay special attention to investigating communications tower incidents. He said OSHA plans to inspect more communications towers and will ask its state partners to do the same. “You can rest assured we will continue to do all that we can to improve safety in this industry — even new regulations, if necessary,” he said. “These tragedies should not be written off as the cost of doing business.”
Mark Lies II, an attorney with Seyfarth Shaw who specializes in occupational safety and health matters, described Michaels’ speech as a series of slaps to the face of the industry. Speaking during a NATE Unite conference session, Lies warned tower technician employers that OSHA is likely to raise the classification of some tower safety violations to “willful,” which would have a serious effect on contractors’ ability to do business. “Many customers will not do business with a company that has a record of willful violations of OSHA regulations,” he said.
Another task force member, Julius C. “Jake” Washington, said in a prepared statement that his company is proud to participate in the 100 percent tie-off campaign. Washington is a project manager at Jacobs Engineering. “With the collective, industry-wide influence of the companies represented on the task force, we have a unique opportunity to raise the profile around the 100 percent tie-off requirement and drive home the message that there should be a zero-tolerance policy regarding this law,” he said.
Participating companies and organizations affirming their commitment to the 100% Tie-Off 24/7 Awareness Campaign include:
Alcatel-Lucent, American Tower, AT&T, Bechtel, Black & Veatch, Crown Castle, Ericsson, General Dynamics, Goodman Networks, Jacobs Engineering, MasTec Network Solutions, Motorola Solutions, National Association of Tower Erectors, Nexius, Nokia Solutions and Networks, SAI Communications, SBA Communications, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, Velocitel, Verizon Wireless, WesTower Communications
— Don Bishop, Executive Editor, Associate Publisher, AGL magazine