Urgent Matters

It’s been a tough year for tower safety

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The wireless industry is on pace to have more tower-climbing deaths in 2013 than almost any recent year, something than an official with the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE) hopes is an aberration.

In February, I chatted with Todd Schlekeway, executive director of the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE) about last year, in which the industry recorded only one tower-climbing fatality. Of course, as Schlekeway always says, even one fatality is one too many. That said, 2012 will go down as one of the safest years ever in the tower construction and maintenance sector.

As good as this news was, Schlekeway said, “We’re not out of the woods yet.” At the time, he had no idea just how prescient those words were.

Last month, the Wall Street Journal published a story in which it reported that 10 tower-climbers suffered fatal accidents in the first eight months of this year. At that pace, the industry would experience 15 deaths for the full year—almost as many as the 18 the industry suffered in 2006, the year which caused OSHA to declare the tower construction industry as the nation’s most dangerous, according to the newspaper.

When I spoke with Schlekeway about the article, I could hear the weariness in his voice. Safety is something that Schlekeway and NATE take very seriously; the association has developed numerous check lists that member companies can use to ensure that the work being done on towers is being done safely. He conceded that this has been a troublesome year but suggested that it could be an anomaly.

“The cyclical nature of accidents is difficult to understand,” Schlekeway said.

However, he was quick to acknowledge that the tower industry and everyone in it—carriers, contractors, subcontractors and personnel—need to be ever vigilant.

“Everyone in the chain has a role to play in safety,” Schlekeway said.

Indeed, Schlekeway likes to talk about creating a “culture of safety” that weaves throughout the industry, from top to bottom. For example, every tower climber needs to wear a safety harness and make sure that it is attached to the tower at all times—no exceptions.

“As basic as that is, I can’t emphasize it enough,” Schlekeway said. “Climbers have to be committed to this, and that doesn’t always happen.”

Regarding carriers, it is imperative that they only use qualified contractors that have been vetted properly, he added. The same holds true for contractors when they hire subcontractors. Right now, wireless carriers are in a so-called “arms race,” as they race to complete their 4G buildouts to keep pace with the competition and their customers’ seemingly insatiable demand for mobile data.

That means that less experienced—and, in some cases, completely inexperienced—climbers end up on the tower and working at an accelerated pace. The faster they can finish one job, the faster they can get to the next one—and right now, there’s always a “next one.”

“It’s a ‘perfect storm,’” Schlekeway said. “This is a very big industry that has a shortage of workers.”

The best way for a carrier to combat this is to only hire contractors that are NATE members, according to Schlekeway. One carrier, U.S. Cellular, is doing just that, going so far as to write the stipulation into their contracts, Schlekeway said. Such contractors get access to NATE’s tower-safety materials and best practices, including the aforementioned checklists.

“Safety starts with qualified contractors,” Schlekeway said. “Are they vetted? What’s their level of experience? What’s their safety record? These are questions that also have to be asked of subcontractors.”

I asked Schlekeway about allegations reported by the Wall Street Journal that some carriers offer contractors bonuses for meeting deadlines. The article specifically referenced Alcatel Lucent’s Tower Construction Acceleration program, which was launched in May. (Alcatel Lucent reportedly manages Sprint’s buildouts.) The program pays bonuses of $3,000 for work done “on time and without defects,” the WSJ said.

It strikes me that such bonuses would exacerbate the safety challenge—the faster contractors and subcontractors work, the more likely they will make mistakes, borne of haste and/or fatigue.

But Schlekeway said that the bonuses are designed more to ensure that contractors don’t do shoddy work, rather than getting them to move faster—a sentiment echoed by an Alcatel-Lucent spokeswoman in the WSJ article.

“Some companies are having to redo work that has been done poorly,” Schlekeway said. “That’s bad.”

It is bad on a couple of different levels. One, it costs the contractor time and money. Worse, from a safety perspective, it places additional time pressures on the contractor.

I couldn’t get Schlekeway to indicate whether he thought the bonuses were a good idea. But he did say that any such programs should have a safety component to them, perhaps by paying a contractor more when no accidents have occurred at a job site. That’s a very good idea.

Some NATE member companies won’t take work if they think that there are unrealistic deadlines attached to the project, Schlekeway said. I scoffed at this—it’s difficult to imagine in today’s economic climate any company turning away business based on principle. But Schlekeway insisted that it’s true, and I’ve always known him to be a straight shooter.

“We have member companies that have very established portfolios of existing business, where they’re busy and have been for quite some time—and will be, for quite some time going forward,” Schlekeway said. “They’re busy enough that, when they’re approached with these new projects with these unrealistic deadlines, they don’t have to take them on.”

Talk about putting your money where your mouth is.

While it would be nice to think every contractor would operate so nobly, it’s unlikely to happen. Money not only talks, it screams, and few companies are able to resist its siren song. More realistic is the idea that carriers and contractors would do their due diligence every single time when it comes to vetting tower workers and ensuring that they are operating according to NATE’s best practices.

And the best way to do that is to do as U.S. Cellular is doing, which is to hire only NATE-member companies. This approach likely is costing U.S. Cellular a few bucks, because I’m guessing that well-qualified contractors cost more than do those that are less qualified. So, U.S. Cellular also is putting its money where its mouth is regarding tower safety—and should be applauded for it.

NATE should be applauded too. Hopefully, this year is an aberration regarding tower fatalities. Regardless, one can expect NATE to continue beating the drum for tower safety, as it has done so well for the last few years—a key reason why this year could turn out to be an aberration.

And, when the unthinkable does occur, NATE plans to be there for that, as well, in the near future. The association is working to establish a foundation that will benefit the families of tower workers that have been killed or disabled as the result of a tower accident.

“Our dream scenario would be to launch it next February during our trade show,” Schlekeway said.

I haven’t known Schlekeway long, but I think I now know him well enough to suggest that his real dream scenario would be that the foundation never has to write a check, because everyone went home at the end of the day—every day—safe and sound. 

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Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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