Hello everyone. On February 11th I went to 445 12th St SW, Washington DC, which you may know better as the FCC headquarters. What was I doing there? I was invited to participate on a panel of the Tower Safety Workshop. First off, I think that it’s great that the FCC and DOL/OSHA got together to do something like this for the tower industry. Not only for the tower industry, but for the wireless industry! The FCC shows that they care enough to host this and OSHA is making every effort to understand the problems out in the field. They are working to support all efforts to prevent death and injury at the tower site. It will take a team effort to make this happen. Who is on the team? The FCC, DOL/OSHA, wireless carriers, tower climbers, wireless contractors, and everyone working in the wireless and broadcast industry. This means you! It needs to be a team effort. I consider myself part of that team, do you?
Thank you FCC and DoL/OSHA for putting this together, for taking the time to show you care about making this a better industry.
First off, let’s look at what the problem is. Tower climbers die. They die working on tower when they fall. There are many reasons for the accidents. They could be due to a poorly trained climber or crew, a climber got complacent or lazy, shortcuts were taken, or maybe it was just an accident. Sometime accident happen or equipment just fails. When someone falls from over 80 feet off the ground it usually ends in a fatality.
If you think it isn’t a big deal, you don’t understand how a death can affect a family. So let me ask you to visualize something. You’re at a site watching the climber go up the tower. You see them put all their gear on, you see them attach the safety gear and perform 100% tie off. Or, maybe you don’t pay attention to what they are doing at all, maybe you’re worried about your job. Then look again, and imagine that it’s a child, your child, going up the tower. Imagine that your child is making a mistake or not tied off properly. Imagine you see your child slipping off that tower from only 50 feet up and there is nothing you can do! Now how do you feel about that climber, knowing that it could be your child falling. That they will die if they make a mistake? It really puts it in a different light knowing that someone’s child, possibly your child, could die. Many people lost children because of this over the years. This is why we will prevent as many as we can. We would like to prevent all of them if possible. Nobody wants to lose another family member.
There was so much covered at the workshop. So much more that I can really cover. I intend to cover most of it and point out things I agree with, disagree with, and things that were missed. I really can’t get it all in one article.
There were 3 panels and several speeches. I don’t want to slight anyone but I would like to cover the parts that really stuck out.
I don’t want to discount the opening speeches that were made by some very important people in the industry.
- Tom Wheeler, (FCC Chairman and if you don’t know who he is, wake up), opened it up with a speech on the loss we have seen in the industry and as long as we have one death, it’s too many. There were 3 recorded climbers that died this year, the only acceptable number would be ZERO!
- Roger Sherman, (Chief, Wireless Telecommunications Bureau,
FCC), who brought us up to speed with all of the work that has been done so far. He thanked everyone for making progress. He thanked Kathy Pierce for all that she has done to show us how the loss affects families. He pointed out how in today’s world most American’s smartphones are more than a convenience, but a way to get work done and a part of our everyday lives.
- Eric Seleznow, (Deputy Assistant Secretary, ETA, DOL), oversees the national apprenticeship programs. He was happy how far TIRAP has come in the past year and a half. He was very happy that the FCC and DOL could work together for this effort.
- Matthew Colengo, (Chief of Staff, DOL), talked about the progress that has been made and gave a special thanks to Kathy Pierce for all that she is doing to improve work conditions and the treatment of tower climbers. He also brought up Ernie Jones and gave Ernie credit for all that he has done in the industry and how sad it was that we lost him.
First off let’s cover Panel 1, (my panel), that covers the changes that need to be made to the FCC/DOL Guidance for Best Practices for improving Safety. If you’re watching the video, this starts at 26 minutes in.
- Claire Wack, Attorney Advisor, CIPD, WTB, FCC
- Jessica Douma, Regulatory Analyst, OSHA
- Wade Sarver, (me!)
- Jason Becker, National Radio Operations Branch, BLM
- John Parham, Jacobs Engineering Group
- Don Doty, National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE)
- Kevin Schmidt, National Wireless Safety Alliance (NWSA)
- Angela Jones, Union Wireless, who is a structural engineer, project engineer, and certified climber.
- Jessica asked how should company’s go about creating an environment where climbers can report unsafe conditions or a dangerous situation without fear of reprisal from their direct boss or up the company chain?
- I brought up that companies need to have an open culture. The climber should not only be able to report it to his boss but if they have an issue then take it farther up to someone else in the company. Angela mentioned how their company being smaller, allows the climbers to be able to do that. John pointed out that NATE’s magazine has article in Tower Times by Tom Bunk about how the culture should be open and geared around safety. Jason talked about how they have reports daily for the climbers to review ahead of time.
- Jessica asked about contractual controls since there could be so many contractors between the carrier and the climber.
- Kevin brought up that the carriers will implement training requirements. Don said that this is already common place for the most part and that we need better supervision and oversight. That is when I brought up that we need a way to audit the safety at the sites and that the climbers on site need to have a number to call to report incidents of climbers without credentials. Reporting to the boss won’t cut it, there needs to be a better way to report problems. Then Don mentioned they a credentialing system is being implemented to require all climbers on site to have the proper credentials and a way to verify them. He said that it will become mandatory at some point and required by the carriers.
- Claire asked John his thoughts about the contracts
- John brought up that the contractors language will help but he also mentioned that it’s up to the tower crew companies to have the proper culture, that even policing may not be enough. He said that you can’t subcontract safety, and he it has to be in the culture of the company. He pointed out that OSHA has a hotline that people can call to report incidents directly to OSHA, the 800 # for them to call.
- Claire then asked Kevin about how contracts are packaged for bidding and how that would affect the climbers at the bottom of the bidding chain.
- Kevin mentioned that the tower work is subbed out in bulk quantities to larger subs which then goes out to smaller subs who in turn may sub it out to even smaller subs before it gets to the climber. He then pointed out that at the top of the food chain no one really knows who is out at the site, specifically the carrier. Now that the new certification program coming it will raise the standards. John brought up that complacency is a real problem and that we need to keep the climbers alert on their job because one oversight or mistake could be the end. He said that the climbers need to have good discipline. He stated that all the workers need to be on the same page as far as a common safety message. I mentioned that it is a good idea but how do you instill this into all the tower companies spread across the country. Then Jason pointed out that the work has to be done in the beginning of the contract and to report the close calls and problems on site to record all issues that the climber ran into on site, reporting is very important. Then Angela pointed out that the tower needs to have proper anchor points, that many are not designed the way they should be for safety. John agreed and pointed out that often training is done with a perfect scenario but in the field there are more situations that they don’t encounter in training.
- Jessica asked Angela what more we should do on the tower to improve safety.
- Angela brought up that towers need to have dedicated tie off points and that they need to eliminate dangerous mounting situations like the T arms on monopoles often called the widow maker. Then she brought up that TIA-222F and 222G has many of the requirements. TIA-222G actually has a chapter on proper rigging. How experienced climbers know how to handle some of the situations. John added that the site supervisor should be qualified to supervise and climb, to have the experience to lead the climbers to do things the right way.
- Claire then asked a question from the audience. Does the accredited ANSI program void their current ComTrain certification?
- The answer was written on the card, which said it’s a supplemental certification so it will not void the certification.
- Jessica followed up with the structural discussion about what can we do for the existing towers, can retrofitting be done to make them safer and address dangerous towers out there.
- Angela told us that you could improve the towers out there, not all but many could be improved and made better. She said if given the choice they would prefer to build a new tower.
- Jessica then asked Jason what occupational medical surveillance is required say for physical fitness and fit to climb and should it be addressed.
- Jason answered with the medical check that they need to pass prior to getting hired, and they are looked at annually. Now, out in the field there’s a safety meeting checklist for the tailgate meeting where they not only ask for credentials but ask about medicine and general health. Don said that physical fitness matter and that they should make known any issues that could affect their climbing, mentally or physical or chemical. Don mentioned how STAR was a good program to address these issue and he brought up the safety culture plays a part in this.
- Jessica asked me about how the traveling and long days affected the climbers.
- I brought up that it’s up to the crew leader to make the call about work. I brought up that many crews put in 14 hour days when they are busy, they work extra hard to get home. Therefore the planning needs to be worked out ahead of time to include travel time so that the climbers get the rest they need and that the foreman or crew lead needs to make the call and it would be a better call when the planning is done better. Awareness will make training a requirement and make the contractor look at the drive time as well as the work time.
- Claire followed up with a question to John about how to structure bids so that everything is taken into account and that the crews that you hire are in a good financial position to complete the work.
- John said safety is up to the crew but can be helped with proper planning. When planning out a deployment it takes a lot of work. Now his company works with partners who they select ahead of time. Then, along with that contractors, they plan the work out ahead of time, 60 days, 6 months, and 12 months in advance. Then they can look at the time allocated for each job. They also try to balance the work so that the cash flow to the climber is steady and keeps the workers working. I commended him for doing that and pointed out how much work it was to do that up front and how that was not done in the past. John then said how the upfront work saves time on the backend. Jason brought up the model that the Navy has to lay out the preplanning looking at all of the resources, the time, and the tasks. Then I brought up that the partners program is a good idea because if you work with a partner you know them, what they can and can’t do as well as more about that company than a blind bid. John then said that they work very closely with their partner and have them work in their offices.
- Claire then asked Kevin how do you start the partnership programs and how do you know that they have qualified climbers and technicians
- Kevin said right now there is only the paperwork but when NWSA comes out then you can look up the NWSA number to make sure they are all certified properly. Then Jason mentioned that for the inspections that need to be done at the towers and that there has to be oversight on the climber’s performance, they need to be trained to think about how they tied off and lay out the risks. Don mentioned how the tower is installed once and will be climbed hundreds of times and they anchor points need to be planned out. Angela then talked about OSHA tiers for safety to see that the towers are engineered for safety.
- Jessica then asked about how newer companies that need to train a skilled workforce, how would they plan out the work and keep the trained workforce?
- Don mentioned how broadcast went through the downturn with the transition from analog to digital and how the work dried up. He then said that he was able to transition broadcast workers into wireless workers and how they have to transition the workers if they can. I then said if there is not work, what will you do? If there is no work then you can’t pay the people. So would they come back to this industry after what they have been through? I don’t think so. John agreed and pointed out that work does slow down and pick up. He mentioned that maybe the government could help with zoning and permitting to allow work to move ahead at a better pace.
- Then we wrapped up, Claire asked us each for our best practice ideas.
- Angela said that make sure that the tower is engineered properly top to bottom for safety by having the proper anchor points at the right locations.
- Don said that NATE is working with ANSI on A10.48 to release the criteria for safe practices with the construction and maintenance for towers.
- Kevin said that the contractors should train properly and make sure everyone on site is certified and then each climber should tie off 100% and stop the work if there is a risk to anyone on the crew.
- John says planning is the main thing is planning.
- Jason said they should always climb as partners, work together, climbers are interchangeable and they all are prepared for any problems that might arise. They also provide safe practices.
- I said that there has to be a way to report unsafe towers to someone other than the tower owner. I also said that the climbers need to get paid for their work, it is the #1 complaint that I get.
Then we closed and Jessica said that they will revisit the best practices document to make updates based on what they learned in this session. This was the end of panel one.
I will have more on panels 2 & 3 in later articles.
So here is the breakdown, it went well and we discussed a lot of good ideas. Now they need to be implemented. The culture needs to change. The change needs to come from the tower company’s leadership. If you are a climber, then I would ask you to change the culture of your crew as best you can. Take safety seriously, listen to each other, and work together. Don’t be afraid to point out problems and issues and call the OSHA hotline when you have to. Learn from each other about the best way to do things and have discussions not arguments. Remember that there is no perfect way to do things but if someone has a better idea then maybe listen to it. If your way is better, don’t just say it’s better, explain why and what you have done in the past. We need to make a safety culture.
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Now, the reality is that most climbers won’t care. That is why I believe that the culture needs to start at the top. We really need to work as a team with a common message. I also would ask all climbers to keep a log of what they do each day. If you track what you do then you have a record of what you’ve done. I talk to so many people that think that their time sheet is all they need, but it is not your time sheet is it? It belongs to your boss and you don’t have a log of what you’ve done, who will they believe? I think it’s a good idea to protect yourself. Most of you won’t because it’s just a job, until someone gets hurt. Then all you have is regret. Remember, if you keep a log then you can come up with ways to improve each week.
The main theme we have here is that we’re helping this becomes a career, not just a job. We want the tower industry to be full of professionals. Professionalism will start with you and the way you do your job. Certifications are necessary, but your attitude is also something that could help improve the image of the tower industry. Let’s work together on this.
Be smart, be safe, and pay attention.
I am asking the carriers to provide numbers for workers to call to report payment issues and contractor issues. I didn’t hear from any of them yet, If you know it let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org, but for now, call OSHA!
OSHA cares, don’t be afraid to call the number below and explain to them what is wrong at the site when you feel the work site is not safe! CALL OSHA to report unsafe work conditions!
Panel 1 ends at 89 minutes.
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Give to the Hubble Foundation because if you don’t help these families, who will? Who supports Hubble? The wireless workers and the tower climbers, that’s who! With no support from the carriers or NATE, so it’s up to you! What if it were you? Would you want help? Who would help you if you were hurt? Who would help your family, your spouse, your children if something happened to you? Do you see the people who are hurt?