Q&A: Taking Safety to New Heights

Don Doty, NATE board chairmanEditor's note: Tower climbing has been called "the most dangerous profession." On every job, workers have to be mindful of preventing falls from heights--sometimes extreme heights--contact with live electrical parts, and myriad other hazards. Five years ago, the ratio of industry fatalities per number of workers got the attention of OSHA and state health and safety agencies, which began increasing scrutiny through local emphasis programs. In 2005, regulatory oversight increased when North Carolina promulgated the first tower safety standard. Since then, in keeping pace with widespread wireless and cell phone use, the proliferation of tower construction and resulting demand for more workers to climb, maintain, repair, and retrofit the towers has skyrocketed. The National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE), established in 1995 in Watertown, S.D., has taken on an integral role in educating both the public and industry itself about safety issues. According to Don Doty, chairman of the association's board of directors and vice president of Doty-Moore Tower Services LLC of North Wales, Pa., the industry is rallying and is much safer today than it was when NATE was formed. He discussed this turnaround and the state of the industry in an Oct. 24, 2008, conversation and follow-up e-mail with Ronnie Rittenberry, Occupational Health & Safety's managing editor. Excerpts from the discussion follow.

One of the running themes in a recent NATE webinar was top-to-bottom safety, with focus not only on safety on the tower itself but within the various organizations in the industry, "from the CEO to the most junior member of the staff." Where on the industry's scale do those who actually climb the towers fall?

Don Doty: The climbers are the most important element of it, but everyone else has their contributions. We just want to make sure that everyone is aware that safety is a process that involves every aspect of the company, from the workers to the person who runs the company. Safety has to be instilled in everyone. It has to be part of the fiber and fabric of the company, so the behavior is one that accepts safety as a requirement for the job.

That message definitely was clear in the presentation. Any idea how many tower climbers there are in the United States?

Doty: There have been a few studies, and we estimate that between 8,000 and 10,000 workers in the United States have communications and climbing needs, so I'd say that includes people who work on rooftops who are working on communications antennas to the workers who are climbing a water tower being used and serviced for the communications antenna, in addition to the cellular towers and broadcast towers.

Are most of these climbers or contractors members of NATE? Is that something tower owners expect?

Doty: It's not a requirement. NATE is a nonprofit trade association that's dedicated to making safety the priority focus of tower erection and maintenance, but it's just a trade association for people to have a common goal and unified voice, and to focus the efforts of safety. So, it's like-minded people who seem to migrate toward NATE. Don't get me wrong--it's not to suggest that non-NATE members are less safe; it's just that the amount of information that NATE has is significant when dealing with safety issues.

My impression from the webinar is that falls and lockout/tagout issues are the two biggest hazards tower climbers face on a routine basis. Is that an accurate impression?

Doty: Falls are where most fatalities occur given the distance that climbers work aloft. Because of this, NATE focuses a majority of its attention on fall protection. While we do not have access to industry-wide empirical data, we believe NATE's insurance program closely tracks with the industry trends for most frequent incidents. Lockout/tagout registers in the top 10 of the highest occurring incidents. In addition, getting struck by an object, cut/punctured/scraped or caught in/between are other common accidents.

It is also interesting to note how long the injured workers have been on the job. NATE's insurance statistics show that half of all accidents in 2007 involved workers who had worked for the company for less than one year. During their rookie year, workers are just getting accustomed to safety procedures and appear to be at higher risk of injury. The value of training and mentoring cannot be underestimated and, as such, must be the focus of training and education. Another high risk category is those who have been working in the tower industry for one to five years. Often, workers at this stage get in a routine and forget the basics. This highlights the importance of ongoing safety training programs.

NATE's insurance statistics also show that the majority of incidents occur during the months of February, July, and December. We believe this statistic points to the extreme temperatures during these months that cause additional risks, such as snow and ice (during the cold months) and heat exhaustion (during the warm months). Statistics also show that the majority of accidents occur on Saturdays. The fact that Saturday has the highest incident rate should not surprise us, but what is the cause? Is it the crew running out of gas after a long week or is the weekend break impacting performance? Or both? We are all under much pressure to deliver completed projects on time and on budget. At the same time, we must be certain that our crews are fully rested and ready for the day's activity provided each worker is physically and mentally able to perform the work. One of our hardest jobs is to tell the difference.

What is the range of tower heights we're talking about?

Doty: The tallest towers that are licensed with construction permits are 2,000 feet tall, and that's limited by the Federal Aviation Administration. Above that height, FAA has determined it's a hazard to air navigation. But you need a tall tower to be able to broadcast to markets that have relatively flat terrain. South Dakota is a good example.

I can relate to flat terrain. I'm in Dallas.

Doty: Dallas, Texas, is a good example. Dallas has got a little bit of a bluff south of town called Cedar Hill where it's a few hundred feet taller than the rest of the area, so the towers in Cedar Hill are all 1,550 feet tall. They're among the tallest in the United States, but they're not quite the tallest.

Where are the tallest?

Doty: Well, there are some 2,000-foot towers in Houston, North Carolina, Nebraska, Iowa--generally where there is that flat terrain. Denver, Colo., is kind of unique. You don't need the elevation because you have mountains right to the west of the city, so they can put in a relatively small tower--same antenna, same broadcast methodology, but you can use the natural ground elevation to provide a higher platform, so you don't need a lot of tower.

I would imagine, in that case, just being on a mountain with the winds and elements, it could still be a treacherous undertaking, climbing one.

Doty: For the most part, towers are designed for the worst that Mother Nature can throw at them. Among the heaviest constructed towers in the United States are along the Gulf Coast and the areas that see hurricanes, although there are some very heavy towers that are designed for extreme ice loading in the northern part of the United States, as well. So, there are many different considerations that go into designing a tower. But you don't climb towers in a hurricane or when the tower's iced up with extreme ice loading. For the most part, they're built in beautiful weather, and workers have all the latest safety technology available to them.

What kind of training do climbers receive? Is OSHA involved in it?

communication tower climberDoty: OSHA doesn't do the training. OSHA has requirements that employers must provide safety training and the proper tools to mitigate any hazard. That's true for any employer, not just the tower industry. In many regards, employers must know their specific jobs and what pre-hazard surveys would point out are safety issues that need to be considered before any project is being done. And I can tell you from NATE members that every company has a program to train their workers to their specific task that they might need. For example, our people work on broadcast towers, the tall towers, and a very large majority of NATE members--I think it's more than 85 percent--work in the wireless industry, so they have particular needs and safety issues that they need to resolve on a daily basis. So they train their people to the type of work that they're doing. Some companies work only on rooftop buildings, and they have a different set of safety issues that all their people need to be trained to.

I was just wondering about the typical background of tower climbers. Maybe there's not a typical one, but if a high school student thought, "That's the job for me," what would the best preparation be?

Doty: Well, there aren't classes in college, if that's what you're asking, but there are companies that do extensive, specific training regarding climbing, rescue and retrieval, and accessing elevated work positions, and they're available all over the United States. There is documentation for the training people go through, showing that they have been trained in this particular area or that particular area--like forklift operators have to go through a particular type of training for a particular piece of equipment, and then that person is certified to be on that piece of equipment. Similarly, documentation is absolutely required for every aspect of the type of work that we do. We have very large resources--a library of resources--for the different types of training and education programs available.

In the webinar, the team aspect of the job kept coming up. How many are in a typical team when jobs are contracted? Is there a minimum number of workers?

Doty: Yes, two. It's generally accepted that there are two people. You want to make sure that there's always someone there to be with you. We call it the buddy system. It's like scuba diving, where you don't go down by yourself. I mean, you can, but most companies don't prescribe to that. They always want two people on a job site.

It sounded like there were more people being described in these teams--the climber, the supervisor or competent person on the ground, somebody with binoculars coordinating with somebody else. . . .

Doty: For a tall tower project, or a broadcast tower project, we'll have a hoist operator, the site supervisor--there might be anywhere from six to 10 people on a crew, and there absolutely can be more people involved. For the smallest project, where you're inspecting or you're taking pictures or you're performing light maintenance, you just need a very small crew. When you're installing towers, you need a much larger crew, depending on the type of work you're doing.

OK, and so then the typical project length can also vary widely?

Doty: A wireless tower, or some of the smaller towers, they can be installed with the antenna and the lights that are needed in as little as three days, and a 2,000-foot broadcast tower might take six months to erect and complete, from the time the steel arrives on the site to assembling the sections and getting the equipment ready and then erecting the tower.

Some emphasis in the webinar focused on ensuring tower owners were hiring qualified contractors, and it made me wonder how, in this particular industry, unqualified contractors could even exist for long. It seems that, liability issues aside, just the hazards of the profession would present sort of a weening process, for lack of a better way of putting it. Are there many unqualified contractors out there, and is it something that tower owners have to be on the lookout for?

Doty: Well, one of our emphases is to try to make sure that owners understand that if they require safety to be part of a project or a request for quotation, that they will help themselves by eliminating those companies that might not be able to achieve the level of safety that the industry has described as being the minimum amount of criteria--from training programs to the insurance that's required. NATE has produced a couple of documents that will help owners: the "Owner's Checklist" and then "What is a Qualified Contractor?" are both available on the Web site [www.natehome.com]. They're not very long lists, but they're critical toward getting a safe contractor on a project.

Regarding maintenance, are there scheduled, periodic climbs that must be done?

Doty: There aren't really regulations for maintenance work on towers, but there's a subchapter in ANSI under the electronic industry association and/or telecommunications industry association (EIA/TIA) that has a workgroup called TR14.7, and that workgroup is one that does the tower designs for the entire United States, from the smallest towers to the tallest towers--and in there is a requirement for maintenance schedules and sequence. Towers need to be inspected at intervals and more frequently if they've incurred an unusual weather event. In other words, if a hurricane blows through, then the tower should be inspected for damage and any equipment in the tower, say, if there's been an extreme ice-loading situation or tornado. But towers are built very robustly and are designed to weather these storms. Unusual events create the situation where unusual steps need to be taken to inspect them to make sure they're still secure. . . . The most frequent issue that tall towers have to deal with is to make sure the lights on the tower are properly functioning. It's not uncommon to have a tall tower inspected every year, and they check the lights to make sure they're functioning properly.

Regarding lockout/tagout: In my mind I draw a comparison to highway workers having to keep lanes open for traffic as they do their job. Is that similar to what tower climbers have to contend with--with the "live" electrical parts having to stay on while they are up there so that stations' broadcasts are not interrupted? What LO/TO procedures are typical?

Doty: The analogy is similar in that tower hands are the backbone of today's communications infrastructure. Workers are responsible for building and maintaining the network that keeps cell phones, radio, television, wireless Internet, blackberries, and other mobile devices operational. They must keep all of the towers operational to keep those "lanes" of communication open to the general public. And above all, tower hands must work safely and efficiently to ensure that wireless cell phone and broadcast service is connected so that families, communities, and businesses can stay in-touch and informed.

Climbers work on towers with RF sources (antennas) by restricting work to areas that have been designated safe or by turning down the transmitter power, which reduces ambient RF energy near the emitting source (antenna) until safe levels are achieved. All transmitters that have telemetry capability feature controls that can lock out the possibility of any remote control source from increasing power until the worker is a safe distance from the antenna. Usually this feature has two buttons to engage or defeat this capability, one indicating "Remote" operation and the other button indicating "Local" control. By pushing the "Local" button, remote operators are disconnected from being able to adjust (read: increase) power until the "Remote" function is restored.

RF sources are like a stovetop--you can feel the heat radiating from them but typically have to touch them to get burned. However, high-powered RF emitters, like TV and FM, can create unhealthy RF energy from several meters away. To address this hazard requires measuring RF energy to identify the distance workers must maintain from the antenna before one of two things must happen: 1) Establish that crew members will not go any closer than the safe distance from the energy source at full power, or 2) lower the transmitter power until the energy emitted by the antenna allows workers a much larger area to work without additional RF protective procedures. To work on the antenna itself, the power must be turned completely off.

What sort of RF-protective equipment do climbers use?

Doty: Workers have a variety of safety tools available to them. RF meters and measuring equipment, instant RF safety alert devices, RF protective clothing, and, most importantly, site-specific safety plans and procedures. The FCC requires the operator of RF-emitting devices (antennas) to provide RF safety plans for their transmitting sites. FCC OET Bulletin 65 has more specific information in this regard.

The webinar's moderator referred to the tower industry as "the most dangerous profession." Is that description based purely on BLS data, or is it a carryover from the industry's past?

Doty: The distinction is one based on a statistical evaluation of number of workers, and it's kind of taken out of context.

I would be glad to put it in context. Is it a myth that still surrounds the profession?

Doty: Well, I would point out that one accident is too many. We always strive to make sure that we address issues that are the highest frequency that we can see where incidents are reported. Falls is one of them, so fall protection is one of our focuses.

As you pointed out in the webinar, every year falls top the list of OSHA's most-cited violations.

Doty: Yes. There are fewer accidents today than there were 10 years ago. You know, NATE has been successful in developing best practices and related materials for tower safety, but now we need to take this effort to the next level and [focus on] behavioral changes we think are needed for safety. They're needed at every level of the industry. One of our campaign slogans is "It's Up To You." That means everyone from those who climb the tower to the CEO of the tower companies that employ them. Carriers and broadcasters must accept that safety is the only way to do a job, and we can do this if we create a culture of safety. That all starts at the very beginning: Request a quote from a company that includes safety in the contract. Again, OSHA doesn't have jurisdiction over the tower owners. It has jurisdiction over employers that have employees who climb towers.

You pointed out that "free climbing"--climbing the towers without being tied off--is illegal and cannot be allowed, but this still goes on somewhere, sometimes?

Doty: Some of the accidents that we've seen here this year, people weren't tied off. One hundred percent tie-off means that when the person first steps foot off the ground, and they're climbing the ladder, that they are tied to a ladder with a safety climb device, or they're double hooking. It's a method of moving up the tower, or from point to point horizontally, across the tower, when you're working. And that means that you've got a back lanyard that has two hooks on it, and you can climb two or three steps with one hook hooked, and then you reach up, hook to the next-higher point, and once that's connected you then take you lower hook, climb up a couple more steps, put another one, and so on. Double hooking is slow, but you're tied off 100 percent of the time.

Sounds a little like mountain or rock climbing.

Doty: There are similar aspects, although the equipment is different in some regards. Certainly safety on communications towers has a different factor of safety than rappelling or climbing apparatus. The industry--the industry in general that manufactures safety equipment--has really stepped up since NATE was formed. They saw the need, as NATE helped point out, to develop industry-specific safety equipment, and that's one of the things that NATE has been most proud of, is all its work in conjunction with the safety equipment manufacturers.

Were the first generation of safety devices for tower climbing not as effective or user friendly?

Doty: It was as much an education issue as it was the type of equipment that was being used. The first generation of ladder safety climbing devices needed to be cleaned and properly adjusted, and sometimes that wasn't necessarily done, or the skills weren't necessarily passed on to the people who were using it, and it could encumber the climbing process to the point that the workers often wondered, "Is this safer or more of a hazard to me?" Fortunately, the skills that were developed to help educate and train were quickly addressed.

Is some of that equipment still around and in use? I mean, is the older equipment one of the problems?

Doty: Well, no, the basic equipment, like the cable that goes up the tower, that equipment was fine. It was the devices used for climbing, which were the safety devices that clip on to the cable. New equipment can be retrofitted to the existing climbing cable, so the latest ones still utilize the cables that were put on a tower maybe 20 years ago, and they’re designed to work that way.

But the harnesses have changed. . . .

Doty: The harnesses are more comfortable. There are no pinch points any more. The early ones had some points where at the end of the day you'd find yourself digging at your arms and in between your legs where they'd get raw from climbing. So but now they're all very comfortable and very user friendly. The manufacturers of this equipment have done an excellent job of providing comfortable wear for the workers who are climbing.

So the whole thought of not using this equipment, of free climbing--that's a rare thing these days?

Doty: Well, we'd like to think it is. Unfortunately, as you look at the statistics, there are still a few falls that have happened this year, and the people weren't tied off. If they'd have been tied off 100 percent, we wouldn't be talking about them.

How typical is it to have a competent person on the ground using binoculars at job sites?

Doty: Some companies have elected to do that as a method of making sure that people are working with 100 percent tie off, and just to familiarize themselves with the progress of the work that day. Some people look at it as safety only; others use it to see if the crew is having difficulty. When you're talking about something that might be 2,000 feet in the air, as you can imagine, you can't see.

But there are still radio contacts, right?

Doty: Oh, absolutely. Radio contact is something that many, many companies--most companies--rely on for accurate, quick communications. And redundant radio systems, where more than one worker has a radio on the tower. In fact, some companies have everyone on the job site have a radio.

How does NATE work with OSHA?

Doty: Our national partnership with OSHA was formed on Nov. 8, 2006, and that document was signed creating a program for improving safety and health in the tower erection, service, and maintenance industry. In a year when need for improved tower safety is important, the partnership gives NATE members an opportunity to demonstrate their dedication to the goal by being part of this. NATE partnered with OSHA to help spread the message that every person in the tower industry must accept that they have a role in safety in this industry.

In general, how important is the job the nation's tower climbers do? Given today's level of connectedness and reliance on communications, is the job they do relatively unsung, too easily taken for granted?

Doty: It's the infrastructure of communications in the United States, it clearly is. And the most important communication piece that I could give you right now is that the "It's Up To You" campaign is really central. It's not a gimmick. It's central to understanding that safety needs to be held personally by every person in a company or an operation that has something to do with climbing and working aloft on towers. "It's Up To You" is more than just a campaign slogan. It is a true belief in that need, and I believe it in my heart.

You said you already have seen a turnaround in the industry, compared to 10 years ago. In terms of safety, is it a night-and-day difference?

Doty: It's significant.

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