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.”
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
In light of the 13 deaths in 2013 and four deaths so far this year, OSHA has sent a letter to tower industry employers, imploring them to follow procedures for keeping tower climbers safe. The letter said that penalties would be increased for OSHA rule violations and that investigations would look harder at multi-company sites where the rules are violated.
“OSHA has found that a high proportion of these incidents occurred because of a lack of fall protection: either employers are not providing appropriate fall protection to employees, or they are not ensuring that their employees use fall protection properly,” wrote David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health. “It is imperative that the cell tower industry take steps immediately to address this pressing issue: no worker should risk death for a paycheck.”
The National Association of Tower Erectors collaborated with OSHA on the letter, distributing it to its membership.
“Both NATE and OSHA have the same goals in terms of advocating for workplace safety and ensuring that workers in our industry are able to go home safely each and every night,” said Todd Schlekeway, NATE executive director.
Jocko Vermillion, vice president tower safety, Safety Controls Technology, told AGL Link that he is “glad to see OSHA recognizing there is a problem and stepping up its enforcement.”
Vermillion is a tower safety specialist and OSHA trainer for Safety Controls Technology, who spent 10 years working as a national tower expert with OSHA. Now that he is in the private sector Vermillion works with tower companies to improve their safety programs, making sure they follow OSHA standards.
OSHA is increasing penalties by categorizing all citations as “willful violations of a standard,” which is the highest violation below a criminal charge. Vermillion, who is often hired to consult companies that have been cited by OSHA for safety violations, said he didn’t believe that most companies willfully disregard the fall protection standard.
“The good thing about that is it requires the compliance officer do a more thorough investigation,” he said. “I think the results of the more thorough investigations will prove that companies are better than we think they are.”
Cell tower construction is notorious for multiple levels of subcontractors and a lack of accountability of those contractors that hire the subcontractors. Michaels promised enforcement against subcontractors that break the rules under the Occupation Safety and Health Act, but also those companies that employ them.
Michaels wrote, “During inspections, OSHA will be paying particular attention to contract oversight issues, and will obtain contracts in order to identify not only the company performing work on the tower, but the tower owner, carrier and other responsible parties in the contracting chain.”
Vermillion applauded Michaels’ effort to go up the chain of command and make companies accountable for the subcontractors they hire, but doubted that increased enforcement would lead to increased citations. “OSHA’s power is weak. I don’t think they are going to be able to uphold a lot of the violations that they do issue. It is difficult when there is a contract signed by both companies. Additionally, the burden of proof of the violation is on OSHA,” he said.
However, once a company gets a citation, whether it can successfully defend it or not, it will increase the culture of safety there, according to Vermillion. “A company that gets a citation always becomes a better company, because they learn what did wrong and then they fix it by stepping up their safety program,” he said.
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.