Tower safety still is a big hill to climb
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."
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