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
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