On July 21, 2008, NBC Dateline aired a show about the most dangerous profession in America: tower climbing. The one-hour show focused on a company and crew that mostly works with cellular and two-way installations. I watched this show because, like you, I work around towers and I work with tower climbers.
My first reaction was the term that was used to describe the climbers: tower dogs. I had never heard that before. After the show aired, I talked to Kevin McNamara, the Managing Technology column writer for Radio magazine. Kevin often handles special projects for cellular carrier and has worked with a great number of tower crews. He told me that there are almost two sects of tower climbers. One group tends to work on larger broadcast towers. The other group tends to work on smaller and more prevalent communications towers. There is overlap, but there is a dividing line.
Kevin’s take on the show is that it was a fairly accurate depiction of the communication tower climbers. They work hard and they play hard after work.
Something that the show lightly touched on is that the time window for most tower projects is too narrow. Kevin agreed with this. A few times it was noted that the climber had four hours to complete a project. In one instance, the climber completed it in 2.5 hours. That’s good from a business standpoint. The project was completed under time and no one was hurt.
Too often, the time window is unrealistic, and the climbers are encouraged to cut corners to get the job done. The only corner to cut is safety.
The National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE) issued a statement following the program.
NATE is disappointed with the approach that Dateline took with its Tower Dogs special shown last night. The program did not present an accurate view of the professionalism and work habits of most tower crews. NATE was not involved in the production of this piece, nor is it affiliated with this program.
Now that this program has been run, NATE hopes this shocking portrayal of the tower industry will draw attention to the men and women that face difficult job conditions each day to make cellular, broadcast and radio communications possible.
NATE believes the Dateline piece inadvertently highlighted some of the most critical issues that must be addressed by the tower industry including:
The impact that unrealistic timelines and budgets have on the safety. There is an inherent pressure in our industry to work to the clock rather than to the safety needs of the task at hand. It is our hope that this opens a dialogue with tower owner and operators to show the worth of an investment of safety and the importance of taking the time needed to complete the job properly the first time.
The importance of hiring qualified contractors with the proper equipment and skills to accomplish the task at hand safely. One of the subcontractors featured on the Dateline piece was subject to a safety audit by the general contractor and did not have the correct safety equipment in proper working condition. These safety audits are critical to ensure that the work is done in the safest way possible.
The need for adequate training of all members of the crew. One of the subcontractor’s crewmen walked off the job, putting the team behind schedule because he was the only person trained and qualified. When evaluating a subcontractor it is important to ensure that all members of the team are properly trained so that the team isn’t hampered if one person becomes unavailable.
As demonstrated by this television show, the tower workers, especially those working aloft, are the focal point for many of the pressures that are inherent in today’s tower construction environment. In a very real sense, the brunt of the industries pressure rests on the shoulders of these individuals.
Although Kevin Hayden, board member and founding member of NATE, was interviewed as part of this special, the story edited out many of his comments stressing the importance of creating a dedication to safety and the efforts that this industry is taking to improve.
While highlighting the dangers inherent to working aloft, we hope the show will also help tower owners and operators and everyone else involved in tower construction and maintenance realize their role in protecting the men and women working aloft. We hope that this will start a dialogue to address what can be done to prevent future accidents and ensure that everyone goes home safe at the end of the day.
We believe that the only way the industry can conquer its challenges is by creating a continuous dedication to safety. This is a dedication that must extend from the tower owner and operator, to the project manager, primary contractor, sub contractors as well as every person who works on a tower site from a project’s beginning to end. The dangers of this industry are not going to vanish, but must be addressed by an ongoing concentrated effort by everyone involved.
Like or hate the TV program, NATE has a good point. There is no substitute for safety. If the pressure is on to complete a task in an unrealistic time frame, it’s up to an individual to decide it is not worth the risk. He may get lucky and everything will be fine. If not, the unfortunate situation that was shown in the program could happen: a climber fell to his death.
The TV program focused more on the personalities of those profiled than the actual details of the dangerous career. This was entertainment, not a documentary.
While few Radio magazine readers actually climb (and those who do should be properly trained and equipped), the same attention to safety applies everywhere. When a transmitter is off the air, there is a focus on getting it back on the air quickly. Off the air time is lost revenue. At the same time, taking a chance and electrocuting yourself is not worth the risk either. Wait the extra 15 minutes for a second person to join you at the site before working on the high voltage supply.