Improving tower safety requires all-hands-on-deck approach
The last couple of times that I spoke with Todd Schlekeway, executive director of the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE), he sounded much better than when we chatted in September. Back then, he sounded like a prize fighter who had just gone 15 rounds with the champ. That’s because we were talking about a Wall Street Journal article on the high number of fatalities the sector has experienced this year, which will go down as one of the worst in history for this metric.
Schlekeway is in better spirits these days, because of an event that NATE pulled together—dubbed the “Telecommunications Industry Safety Summit”—that was conducted in Dallas in October. A total of 46 representatives from tower owners and operators, as well as construction contractors, met to discuss the major issues concerning tower safety. Each representative was a high-level person within his or her organization, which was very important, according to Schlekeway.
“I was thrilled by the level of those around the table,” he said. “That’s what it’s going to take to impact change at the end of the day. You have to have the right people from the right companies.”
The next step will be to create a task force that will start peeling back the onion. Among their tasks will be to determine whether pre-hiring practices and training curriculum can be standardized across the sector. Currently, the skill and experience levels of personnel vary significantly from company to company, according to Schlekeway.
“Pre-hiring practices got a lot of attention,” he said. “Is there a way to make that more uniform across the board, so that we can say, ‘Here’s what someone looks like who is qualified’? … Already, there is a consensus that there needs to be greater focus up front on vetting these people and training them properly for working at elevated heights.”
Another point of emphasis for the task force is to figure out how to deal with the current shortage of qualified tower climbers. That’s problematic under normal conditions, but right now the sector is operating as if its hair is on fire, given the so-called “arms race” that’s going on between the commercial carriers. There’s an incredible amount of work to be done and not enough experienced people to do it, which is a bad formula for tower safety.
“There was some discussion [during the summit] about developing the workforce in order to alleviate the shortage,” Schlekeway said. “That goes back to whether you can develop more partnerships with community colleges and technical institutes, so that you can get this profession more into the mainstream when it comes to the training portion of it.”
To help tower construction and maintenance companies find the best training curriculum for their employees, NATE recently launched the NATE Exchange, which lists a variety of training programs that are compliant with the association’s climber fall-protection training standards.
Eric Munsell, the environmental, health, safety and security manager within Black & Veatch’s telecommunications division, shares Schlekeway’s perspective regarding the current shortage of qualified workers and its impact on an industry that is exploding.
“We are in the midst of a building boom right now, with the race for technology that’s out there,” Munsell said. “In order to meet customer demands, we’re putting up a lot of equipment, taking down a lot of equipment and changing it out at fairly quick speed. … This is definitely causing a strain on the resource pool. And, because of those resource shortages, we’re starting to see new entrants come into the industry that a year or two ago might not have existed.”
It’s going to take some time—perhaps a considerable amount of time—to shore up the resource pool. Developing new and better partnerships with educational institutions, and securing industry consensus on pre-hiring practices isn’t going to happen overnight. So what happens in the meantime? It seems far-fetched that tower owners and operators—and the contractors they employ—will slow things down in the interest of safety, not when there’s so much work to be had, not to mention the big piles of money that the work generates.
But Munsell thinks there’s plenty of incentive to do just that, because good safety practices also can have a positive impact on the bottom line.
“A lot of people say that safety costs too much, but if you look at the value that safety truly offers, it can be a cost savings, as long as it is well implemented and managed” he said. “For example, there are cost savings regarding insurance. In addition, there are costs associated with accidents and injuries. And, to the extent that you can prevent those from occurring, you don’t bear those costs.”
Munsell added that the indirect costs associated with an accident—e.g., the ensuing investigation and work stoppage—also can be considerable. The best way to avoid them is to prevent the accident—and a good safety program can go a long way toward accomplishing that goal.
Beyond the financial implications of tower safety, there also are human implications to consider. Munsell said that those are given equal heed.
“In order to get to the bottom line, are we going to put somebody’s health and well-being in harm’s way? I don’t know anyone in this industry who would say ‘Yes,’” Munsell said. “If it comes down to it, we’re all going to put the safety and well-being of the craftsman first.
“Besides, a happy worker is a productive worker, and safety is a big factor in that.”
It’s possible that the spike in tower fatalities this year simply is a statistical aberration and that the industry is no more dangerous than before. Yet, tower climbing remains one of the world’s most harrowing professions, so it’s good to see that NATE and its member companies are taking a proactive approach to improving safety. I’m eager to see what comes out of the task force—my sense is that it will be something that goes far beyond lip service.