February 9, 2017
Safety in the telecommunications industry comes in a variety of topics; fall arrest systems, training, RF radiation, train the trainer programs, 100-percent tie off, equipment, responsible management, climber responsibility, drug use, employing men and women on the job before they are ready, etc… I could make a list to take up three single spaced pages, but one topic we rarely hear about, if ever, is a climber’s time behind the wheel of a car.
The industry has very recently experienced the death of technician Kenton Seales because of an automobile accident while traveling to market. Now, I believe is a very opportune time for us to touch on the issue. Arguably, technicians spend a massive amount of time over the course of a year behind the windshield. It is, in my opinion, one of the most overlooked hazards to our technicians. First, we will look at some statistics for automobile accidents in general, and then look specifically at the nature of workplace related accidents, information on “drowsy driving,” and lastly we will look at a double fatality in the industry from 2014; the deaths of Joshua Oglesby and Trevor Flum.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there has been a decline in traffic related fatalities from 2006-2014, with a slight increase in 2012. The good news, according to the NHTSA 2013 statistics, is that this small increase from 2012 is now on the downturn yet again.
I will not list every statistic, but here are some general early release statistics from the NHTSA for 2013:
· There were 32,675 fatal crashes in 2014, a 0.7 decrease from 2013; this is 89 fatalities per day.
· Crashes occurring in rural areas decreased by 5.8%, while urban area crashes increased by 2.4%.
· In 2013, 6,337 people were injured each day in motor vehicle crashes.
· Regardless of the type of crash, there was an economic cost of $277 billion and $870.8 billion in “the total value of societal harm includes economic costs as well as quality of life lost, such as lost market and household productivity” (AAA, 2014).
· A motor vehicle injury occurs every 14 seconds in the U.S.
· The number of people killed in distraction-affected was 3,154 in 2013, down from 3,380 in 2012. (6.7 percent decrease), However, one should note that the estimated number of people injured in distraction-affected crashes (424,000) increased by 1 percent compared to 2012.
* This early release only includes preliminary vehicle miles traveled for 2013. It does not include other 2013 or final 2012 exposure data (i.e., vehicle miles traveled, registered vehicles, licensed drivers).
When our industry is booming, more trucks and employees are on the roads. This means that statistically, it is more likely for there to be accidents. Combine that with the insane hours many crews spend on the road, the long hours on the tower, and the other various factors that affect the health and mental agility of our technicians, and you potentially have an issue. This is, of course, true with many other industries and not just telecommunications. While I am sympathetic to other industries, my focus is our techs and our business owners as well. Staying alert, healthy, and mindful about the place techs arguably spend the majority of their time is important for, not just the health of the worker, but the business and industry as a whole.
Workplace Auto Accidents and Drowsy Driving
When it comes to related automobile safety in telecommunications, one could reasonably argue fatigue could play a key role as a job-related hazard. Several studies in the past have shown effective approaches to reduce sleepiness caused by working nighttime hours or erratic shifts; both of which apply to telecommunications (Harma, 1993). One of the first things to combat such an issue is educating the employee on the hazard of fatigue while driving, mainly to educate them on circadian rhythm changes (1993).
According to the NIH (2015, n.p.), “circadian rhythms are produced by natural factors within the body, but they are also affected by signals from the environment. Light is the main cue influencing circadian rhythms, turning on or turning off genes that control an organism’s internal clocks.” Furthermore, Circadian rhythms influence sleep-wake cycles, hormone release, body temperature and other important bodily functions, and are important in determining human sleep patterns.
In relation to automobile operation, other research bears out that working longer than periods of “eight hours have been shown to impair task performance and increase crashes” (CDC, 2004, n.p.).
A recent study conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety (AAA, 2014) found that while government statistics indicate only about 1-3 percent of crashes each year are related to driving while drowsy, the true prevalence is likely much higher. Researchers found that in accidents resulting from a drowsy driver:
· 6 percent of them had a vehicle towed from the scene,
· 7 percent of involved someone receiving treatment for injuries sustained in the crash,
· 13 percent of crashes involved someone being hospitalized,
· Moreover, 21 percent of crashes resulted in a fatality; this is up from the 16.5 percent from the previous study.
This same study (AAA, 2014) also found that an estimated 328,000 crashes each year, including 109,000 injury crashes and 6,400 fatal crashes, involved a drowsy driver, and more than drowsy driving crashes involve drivers drifting off the road, or out of their lane. Furthermore, a survey of drivers 16 and older showed that within the last 30 days 28.3 percent of drivers “operated a vehicle when they were so tired that they had a hard time keeping their eyes open. An earlier survey found that 41 percent of drivers said they had fallen asleep or “nodded off” at least once in their lives while driving and 11 percent said they had in the last year” (AAA, 2014).
Joshua Oglesby and Trevor Flum
Arguably, the highest price for an auto accident is the loss of life. In 2014, Joshua Oglesby and Trevor Flum were killed, while another co-worker attempted to warn Josh and Trevor. However, he was unable to, but luckily, was able to jump clear of the trailer.
This is what is known as a roadway departure crash: A crash in which a vehicle crosses an edge line, a center line, or leaves the traveled way” (NHSTA, 2014). According to the NHTSA, the types of crashes that make up these accidents include vehicles that ran-off-road (right or left), crossed the centerline or median, went airborne, or hit a fixed object.
According to news reports, Joshua Oglesby and Trevor Flum of Midwest Underground Technology Inc. (MUTI) were killed in a brutal traffic accident in Oklahoma. Both lanes on IH-44 southbound closed for more than five hours; they were legally parked on the shoulder of the highway.
I can tell you, after having spoken at great length with both families, is that they are strong and determined to seek justice for the ones they have lost, but they are also heartbroken.
A Mom’s Heartache
Josh was unmarried, but he had a loving family and a daughter named DixieLee. DixieLee was his everything, and he started in the industry to create a better life for his daughter. His entire family continues to struggle as one would expect, but his mother Lisa is not about to give up. According to Lisa, “Josh was not only a son, a brother, a nephew, a cousin and a grandchild, but also a father.
No, Josh and Trevor did not lose their lives falling from a tower, but their lives were taken on the way to their job site. We do not believe that this makes their death less tragic or less important than those that fall from a tower, or are killed in an onsite accident. We have encountered some comments from others in the industry that because Josh and Trevor were referred to as “Greenies” in the Tower Industry, their deaths are not as serious as the death of a climber that fell from a tower. Because some do feel this way, we feel pain and disrespect over such comments. This industry claims to be a “brotherhood,” and in that vein, all members of the industry should be concerned with the deaths of ALL members of the telecommunications industry; one tragedy is no less than another.
There are no words to describe what a parent, or a mother for that matter, feels when their child has been taken from them, and there not being justification for the death. Their entire lives have been changed forever, because of the carelessness of this tragedy. Parents have lost their only son, a sister has lost her only brother, and grandparents have lost a grandchild. Nieces, a nephew, aunts, uncles, and cousins have all lost a loved one. However, the one person that has lost the most is Josh’s daughter, who is now is without a father.
I want to stress that you can never imagine losing your child, but to lose your child is a mother’s nightmare. The lack of compassion that has been shown in Josh’s case, I wish on no person. No, we cannot bring Josh back but we can make a difference in preventing another person experiencing what we have. I would like to honor my son for the upstanding man that he was by bringing awareness. We would like help bring to pass a vehicular homicide law that is a penalty for someone who makes the decision to drive while being sleepy, texting, talking on a cellular device, or being distracted. If this was put into place then maybe people would consider the weight of these things before they decided to get behind the wheel of a vehicle, risking the lives of others.’’
A Wife and Child’s Pain
Amanda Flum, wife of Trevor Flum recounted to Hubble Foundation, “Trevor was a ‘tower dog’ for 15 years, and truly loved it.” She went on to say, “Trevor was a hardworking, generous man and he was loved by so many.” Like Amanda, many widows in the industry have a difficult time finding the words that can adequately express their loss. In many instances, the words will not come as fluidly as we would like. While Amanda felt unable to elaborate further, it should be reiterated that losing a spouse is heart wrenching, especially when there are children involved.
One does not have to experience the loss to show sympathy. Regardless of how one is killed while executing their job, the spouses, children, mothers, fathers, extended family, and friends are the ones left to grapple with the absence of the ones they love.
This industry will continue to grow, and with that, more employees will be scattered across the country not only working on-site, but also driving to and from those sites in order to make a living for their families. OSHA does not include these traffic deaths, although work related, into the statistics on fatalities for the industry. As Wireless Estimator had stated in a recent article, “Although there is an element of the industry that would like to see those fatalities included when totaling the profession’s fatalities, OSHA and the Bureau of Labor Statistics do not since those fatalities will skew their ability to assess the industry.” Craig Lekutis was also correct in his article when he stated that the accident that took the life of Josh and Trevor (and a later accident that took the lives of five), are vehicle incidents “that could have been prevented by observing proper safety rules and following standards, since they were caused by reckless drivers that were not company employees.”
From a statistical and analysis standpoint, I truly do understand, but I do not want people to lose sight of the fact that site accidents are not the only ones to occur that leave families devastated. Furthermore, I want to encourage workers to be mindful of their time behind the windshield, and to remember that their safety is most important. Sadly, no….We cannot always stop the actions or inattention of others on the road, as with those that caused these horrific accidents, but EVERYONE can be vigilant in the time they DO spend while behind the wheel.
Dr. Bridgette Hester is the founder and president of Hubble Foundation. Hubble Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to telecommunication technicians and their families, was begun after the death of her husband, Jonce Hubble, because of a tower accident in 2010.
Lisa Newsome is the mother of Joshua Oglesby.