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Tower safety still is a big hill to climb

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Tower safety, always a challenge given the inherently dangerous nature of the work, is becoming even more so as commercial wireless carriers rush to expand their infrastructure to meet burgeoning customer demand.

When I was a college student, I spent a summer working for a commercial painter. As summer jobs go, this one wasn't bad. There was plenty of fresh air and sunshine, decent money, and the two guys I worked for — friends of my father's — were a laugh a minute.

There was only one little problem: they got so busy at one point that they put me in charge of a job while they plied their craft elsewhere. By itself, that wasn't an issue — I was a pretty responsible kid. What was the issue, however, was that I had to paint the exterior of a three-story home. So, I found myself on an extension ladder for hours each day, 30 feet above hard ground. It was terrifying.

I thought about this episode for the first time in a long time recently. What triggered this repressed memory was an article on tower-climber safety that I wrote for our February print edition.

Those who scale these towers — structures that dwarf the house I painted — are awe-inspiring. It makes me nervous just watching video of tower climbers doing their thing. I can't even imagine being clamped on one of these real-life erector sets, several hundred feet above ground. As I understand things, the safety harnesses and other equipment that climbers use are top-notch and light years better than they were even a decade ago. Still, I think I'd have to be encased in a walled structure to do this work — and even then, I'd think long and hard about it.

Last year, only one tower-climber fatality occurred, a 19-year-old who fell 153 feet off a cellular tower he was working on. It feels odd to type the word "only." As Todd Schlekeway, executive director of the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE) said to me recently, "one is one too many." Amen.

Speaking of NATE, the association over the last several years has worked very hard to change the culture within the tower industry to one that makes safety its top priority, and it seems to be making progress. For instance, NATE has provided sound guidance in terms of the equipment that climbers should use, as well as how to filter qualified contractors who take safety seriously from the rest. It also has worked with carriers to help them better understand their responsibilities. Schlekeway told me that one such carrier — U.S. Cellular — has written into its contracts that it only will use NATE members for tower work. That's a huge step in the right direction.

Undermining this effort is the fact that an "arms race" currently is underway amongst the commercial wireless carriers, each of which is scrambling to build out infrastructure to keep up with customer demand driven by a seemingly insatiable appetite for mobile data. There is an enormous amount of work out there right now that is attracting contractors and personnel with sketchy qualifications. Add to that the pressure to finish work quickly in order to move on to the next site, and what you get is a formula for disaster.

Being a journalist, I can speak to this on some level. We constantly are under deadline pressure, and our resources are spread pretty thin. As the adage goes, haste makes waste, so mistakes occasionally get made. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, we run a correction. When mistakes get made on a tower, people suffer serious injuries or even death.

There's a lot more to this story, which I go into in greater depth in our February edition. I hope you'll read it. In the meantime, I'll borrow from the immortal Sgt. Phil Esterhaus of Hill Street Blues fame by saying to everyone who climbs towers, "Let's be careful out there."

What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.

Discuss this Blog Entry 2

Bill Ruck (not verified)
on Feb 5, 2013

In my youth I spent a lot of time on towers. I won't admit that it was easy or say I was never scared. But it was interesting and challenging work and I was in much better shape in those days.

I also turned down work that was too scary. I tried climbing at night and after a couple "almost" incidents I decided that working in the dark hundreds of feet off the ground was not a good idea.

The basics have not changed. You have to pay attention at all times to what you are doing, the next step you will take, and how to get there. "Ooops" is not a good thing to say even with the best safety equipment.

Regarding that, the most important safety equipment is your mind. Pay attention to what you are doing.

Now that I'm older and what hair I have left is grey, I appreciate what climbers do and do my best to only ask them to do what I could do and not ask them to do something that is either risky or does not help the project.

Dave Anthony (not verified)
on Feb 7, 2013

Glenn,

I greatly appreciate the credit you give to NATE and to U.S. Cellular in their efforts to promote tower worker safety. Changing the tower industry culture is an effort that will take continual work and pressure for a generation. I started in this business 30 years ago and I can tell you I was not a safe climber by today's standards by any means. I have had to learn, apply and change my attitude toward safety over the years.

I have thirty qualified climbers working for me now and I sleep well at night knowing all of them have been prepared to do the work I send them out to do. Training and application alone are not enough though. Enforcement of proper policy and procedure is a must. Human nature and the adventurous spirit on anyone who elects to work at heights needs to be guided and constrained by expectation, encouragement and enforcement. Any climber out there who engages in free or improper climbing, once they have been properly trained, should be fired by their employer. Any employer who does not properly train it's climbers and/or fails to enforce the policy should be fired by their customer. Cultural change only occurs by force.

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Glenn Bischoff is the editor-in-chief and publisher of Urgent Communications magazine. Over a 30-year journalism career, his publications have won several ASBPE awards for editorial excellence. He...

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