February 18, 2016 — Discussing best practices for improving tower safety was the first order of business as the FCC and the U.S. Department of Labor held the FCC and DoL Workshop on Tower Climber Safety and Apprenticeship Program, Feb. 11, at the FCC’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. It was the second FCC/DoL tower safety workshop in as many years.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler noted in opening remarks that the first tower safety workshop was held in October 2014 after the industry suffered a staggering number of fatalities that year and a similar number of tragedies the previous year. Since then, the wireless industry has rallied to make the tower environment safer, resulting in the creation of a wireless industry worker certification organization, National Wireless Safety Alliance (NWSA). Additionally, the Telecommunications Industry Registered Apprenticeship Program (TIRAP) was formed to promote training by a joint venture of wireless companies, associations and the DoL. And the number of tower fatalities has dropped significantly.
But the chairman said more needs to be done as tower work is set to increase in the coming years.
“The problem [of tower fatalities] was addressed [in the first tower safety workshop]. The tragedies came down. But we are about to see a steep increase in construction on towers through cell splitting, small cells, [and because of the] additional 600 MHz spectrum obtained through the incentive auction and the broadcast re-pack,” Wheeler said. “To meet this demand there is going to be an influx of individuals to do the work. The new demand will stress the progress we have made. Our challenge is to be ready to deal with that stress that we know is coming.”
Contractual Controls Promise Safer Towers
The tower industry has made strides forward toward requiring all tower workers to be certified as competent, according to Kevin Schmidt, NWSA board member.
“There are contractual controls that will be put in to place,” Schmidt said. “The top national carriers have agreed to add into their contract language that anyone working on their site is going to have to be NWSA approved, starting later this year or early next year. That will eliminate the companies that send out the newer people that are not trained or certified and don’t know exactly what they are doing.”
Wade Sarver, blogger at Wade4Wireless.com, called for independent safety audits to ensure that contractors are living up to the agreement to hire certified climbers.
“How do we know there are certified climbers on the site when there are three contractors between the carrier and the tower service company?” Sarver said. “If a climber sees someone that is not certified on the tower, there should be a number for them to call to report the incident.”
Culture of Safety Another Key to Eliminating Fatalities
Don Doty, National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE), said that the industry needs to go beyond contract language to emphasize supervision to ensure that rules are followed 100 percent of the time.
“One of the keys to safety is supervision and oversight. We have found that the most important quality of a crew chief is one that will mentor the other climbers. It creates a trust environment. Having that open culture is very important,” Doty said.
Schmidt added that it all boils down to certified, competent climbers individually taking matters into their own hands to be 100 percent tied-off to the tower and to stop working if things seem unsafe.
Each tower service company should be open to communication about safety issues. But, in the cases where they aren’t, there should be a safety valve, according to Sarver, and fellow tower climbers should police each other. Additionally, the upper management in the company should be trained in tower safety so the culture of safety can trickle down.
“If you have a designated safety person you can go to openly and easily explain the situation after the climb, maybe you could get ideas as to what could have been done better,” he said. “If somebody screws up you have to let them know. It has to be a team effort.”
Long Hours Threaten Climber Safety; Planning Can be the Answer
Tower work can include long travel time and extended days on tower to meet tight deadlines, which can create pressure for workers to go up on the tower when they are less than 100 percent. John Parham, Jacobs Engineering Group, said from a safety perspective, the long hours of the job concern him most.
“We have extremely dedicated and hardworking employees, who work on an hourly basis,” Parham said. “We have to balance allowing them to work hard and provide for their families and constricting their hours so that they stay safe and well rested. It is a challenge we face every day.”
Parham said that one of the answers is for engineering firms to plan tower projects at least 12 months in advance and to form closer relationships with contractors. Instead of submitting bids for individual tower projects, Jacobs Engineering partners with several subcontractors so it can schedule the tower work in advance throughout the year.
“It’s a lot of work upfront, but it is less than the amount of time we spent on revisits, troubleshooting, or tracking down a crew that completed a site and is now back in another state and you are trying to get closeout documentation back to the wireless carrier. It saves time, effort and money in the long run,” Parham said.
Jacobs Engineering invites strategic partners to collocate putting their management into the Jacob’s office and operating their crews out of its warehouses. “It puts us on the same team because we see each other every day,” Parham said.
Sarver agreed, “I am a big fan of partnering. You know more about what the company is capable of doing, how qualified they are, how many crews they have and their specialties,” he said. “It’s important to know their skillsets.”
Tower Design Also a Key for Safe Workers
Panel members called for better engineered towers as an element of a comprehensive tower worker safety program.
Doty said processes and procedures should be developed to deploy anchorages where there aren’t any at this time, working in conjunction with engineers. “Engineers like [the late] Ernie Jones have taken that step forward to help,” he said.
Angela Jones, Union Wireless, (no relation to Ernie Jones) would like to see better towers upfront, with more room for tower workers to do their work at height.
“We need better engineering upfront in tower design. I would like to see a lot more platforms on the towers; there are not nearly enough of them,” Jones said. “Obviously there is more cost associated with designing safer towers. Union Wireless does not balk at that. We are willing to take that on, but we would like to see that adopted across the industry.”