The tower industry has a problem that gets overlooked way too often, according to Kathy Gill, CEO of Tower Safety and Instruction. Derek Case, a mid-tier tower owner of D&K Nationwide Communications located in Bristol, CT agrees and is a first-hand witness to its devastating impact: drug abuse. It has cost Case millions over the past year and has taken the life of one of his crew.
While Gill was providing safety training for D&K, she became familiar with the recent climbing fatality that impacted Case both financially and emotionally.
“I could sense his pain,” Gill said. “And it didn’t just affect him but his family, his employees, even his vendors.”
Gill said D&K followed all the rules and had a good reputation for work performance. They trained their employees on required industry standards, provided all the worker PPE and performed 12-panel drug testing she said. The company was projected to do $5-to-$6 million that year, with a full plate of cell tower construction and maintenance work ahead of them. Case cites his crew member’s tragic death for lost business D&K ended up suffering. Now he faces possible bankruptcy. He has downsized to six employees with the cuts affecting former workers who have been forced to move themselves and their families to find new jobs. Case paid for the funeral and family expenses for his fallen employee.
The accident itself occurred on a day when there was no safety climb on the tower. The vendors were requiring numerous pictures of the site for completion of the close-out documents. Gill related what happened next:
“The foreman took it upon himself to get a few more photos. He climbed 220 feet, attaching and reattaching his Y-Lanyard the entire way, because of the lack of the safe climb device and already worn out from working that entire day,” she said. “That same evening, he needed to climb one more time because these photos were required. At the height of location, he attached his positioner, with the gate open to the top of an antenna pipe, he proceeded to take photos, but never attached his company issued Y-Lanyards. When he went to reposition himself,” Gill said “the open carabiner slipped, and the force caused him to fall to his death.” His Y-Lanyards were still connected to his harness, Gill said, “but he chose not to use them.” He was a 19-year veteran of the tower industry. Case said, his foreman was very fit and loved climbing and that the OSHA report indicated “significant” levels of drugs in the system of the deceased at the time of his accident.
After a five-month investigation from OSHA, the agency said D&K was not at fault, putting the blame squarely on the climber and his actions. But the damage had been done, not only demoralizing the company, but by it getting tainted with a label for having “unsafe” working conditions.
With an industry that sees a dozen or so fatalities a year, Gill worries D&K’s sad tale could be seen as simply a “one off,” an unfortunate but isolated incident. To her, it is symptomatic of an ingrained and often ignored flaw in an otherwise great business.
“The cell tower industry pushes companies to get the job done,” Gill said “even if that means severe cold days, hot endless hours in the heat, never ending windy weeks, long hangtime hours and too many driving hours.”
Gill said she has seen the use of drugs in the industry increasing and has heard similar stories from construction owners coast to coast.
“Does drug testing need to be required before entering a site?” she said. “Carriers and tower owners should want to push for a zero-tolerance policy, especially in such a dangerous, non-forgiving environment.” Oftentimes, Case said, he would require a “snap inspection” urine test immediately prior to a job and would end up dismissing dozens of potential climbers at the tower site.
As Gill sees it, a strong drug policy would meet a lukewarm reception from the major players as it would serve to bottleneck buildout plans and slow the steady flow of cash their investors have come to expect.
“How do we help the fastest growing industry with the largest drug problem per capita?” she said. “Why should this man and his company die along with the climber,” Gill said, “while the carriers and tower owners bank hundreds of billions, acting deaf and blind to what’s really happening in the wireless industry.”
By Jim Fryer, Managing Editor, Inside Towers
August 21, 2018