Workplace accidents and fatalities are often preventable. However, they are called accidents for a reason. Equipment can malfunction, weather conditions can create unexpected impacts, and there is the human factor. The telecommunications industry is particularly risky for field workers.
In 2014, 2 workers in Kansas were killed when the communication tower they were working on collapsed. The workers had been removing equipment from the tower at 250 feet when it fell. Accidents reports stated that the men were wearing appropriate personal protective equipment, such as fall protection harnesses.
While falls are a common cause of workplace injuries and fatalities in the telecommunications industry, tower workers have been injured and killed by falling objects, equipment failure, and the structural collapse of towers, as well.
In September 2017, 3 workers were killed in Florida when they fell nearly 1,000 feet after scaffolding collapsed at a television transmitting tower. The men were about 960 feet above ground, removing equipment from the tower to prepare for a new antenna installation.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also cites an example of a worker with 10 years of experience who was killed after a 90-foot fall. The worker was descending a 400-foot telecommunications tower when he lost his footing. The safety device he was using broke, the chest D-ring ripped out of the body harness, causing him to fall to the ground.
The latest federal reports, released in November of last year, indicated an overall reduction in the number of workplace injuries in the private-sector in 2016. About 2.9 million people were injured on the job in 2016, or otherwise became ill, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Overall workplace fatality data is not yet available, but industry-specific information for the telecommunications industry has been released. In 2016, there were 22 fatalities per 100 workers, an increase over previous years. In 2015 there were 16 per 100 workers, 12 in 2014, and 19 in 2013.
In addition to the inherent dangers of working on communication towers and operating heavy machinery, many projects take place at construction sites, increasing dangers.
The dangers of the telecommunications industry in the field come as no shock to workers who face these risks on daily basis. They deal with the hazards and mitigate the risks of operating heavy equipment, performing tasks on partially erected structures, and installing or removing equipment at heights taller than most buildings.
Events such as the accidents in Kansas and Florida motivate telecom executives to review their safety and prevention policies and procedures. This ranges from simply having safety harnesses available and enforcing their use, to providing more robust training and systems to ensure precautions are taken to help prevent falls, and if falls occur how to respond rapidly.
Quick response in the case of workplace injuries results in more lives saved. Communication towers can be in remote locations. It is possible that a worker could fall or otherwise get injured without others noticing. After a fall or being struck by an object, a worker could be unconscious and unable to call out to coworkers or use a cell phone to place a call to 911 for help. While they offer many conveniences, cell phones and smartphones are the not ideal tools for emergency communication.
For example, a cell phone is not able to detect if someone slipped off a roof, triggered a staple gun and sent a nail through a hand or foot, or had one of the thousands of other emergencies that can occur on a jobsite. With a cell phone, the user is still required to be conscious and within range of the phone to be able to make a call for help. In the case of mobile workers and lone workers, cell phones are not the most reliable or function-rich options for tracking and monitoring employee safety and health.
A better solution than relying on cell phones for emergency communication are easily worn devices (i.e., wearables or wearable devices) that automatically report changes that could indicate an emergency. A device a worker could easily utilize to express the need for help without having to speak or make much of a movement.
Today, there are products like smart hard hats, smart safety vests, smart eyewear, and even stick-on patches that can monitor everything from an employee’s location to body temperature and positioning. These devices eliminate the need for a worker to proactively report an emergency, but, like cell phones, they have their limitations as well.
While these devices are able to transmit certain information about a situation to a manager or human resources department, they do not create a direct line of communication between the worker and responder. If verbal communication is possible in the emergency situation, the worker would still need to place a call on a phone.
A better emergency communication option for the industry are mobile personal emergency response systems (mPERS) devices. Essentially mPERS are a help button that can be pressed after a fall to alert emergency responders that assistance is needed, similar to devices used by seniors for years. These types of technologies have become more beneficial because they no longer require a base station device to place calls, limiting their range of use.
Like other wearables, these devices are small and lightweight. They provide state-of-the-art location technologies, and also offer built-in fall advisory capabilities. Wearables with this type of functionality are able to detect horizontal and vertical movement. Taking it a step further than simply reporting a fall on the job via a text message or red flag in a software system, these smart devices can also eliminate the need for the worker to initiate a call for help. They can trigger one automatically, and Cloud-based technologies can make it possible for Central Stations to immediately respond to the call for help.
Another benefit of such devices over cell phones is long battery life. Unlike phones that sometimes have to be charged multiple times a day, the smart devices have less functions and do not need to be fully functional at all times. They can be left off or essentially in a hibernation mode until the SOS button on the device is pressed or a fall is detected. Once an action occurs, location information can be sent to a central reporting destination and an emergency call can be placed. This enables the devices to have battery lives of up to 30 days on one charge.
Whatever wearable device makes the most sense for a particular company, the most important factor is that business owners and managers take advantage of these new technologies that could potentially save lives and improve the safety and health of their employees.