Tower Climbers Belling the Cat
“100% Tie-off 24/7” Every time I see or hear this well-intended campaign slogan, the fable of Belling the Cat pops into my head. For those of you who have not heard of it, here is a short version of the fable.
Long ago, the mice had a general council to consider what measures they could take to outwit their common enemy, the Cat. Some said this, and some said that; but at last a young mouse got up and said he had a proposal to make, which he thought would meet the case. “You will all agree,” said he, “that our chief danger consists in the sly and treacherous manner in which the enemy approaches us. Now, if we could receive some signal of her approach, we could easily escape from her. I venture, therefore, to propose that a small bell be procured, and attached by a ribbon round the neck of the Cat. By this means we should always know when she was about, and could easily retire while she was in the neighborhood.” This proposal met with general applause until an old mouse got up and said:
— “That is all very well, but who is to bell the Cat?”
The mice looked at one another and nobody spoke. Then the old mouse said:
–“It is easy to propose impossible remedies.”
But is it really impossible? Lets quickly analyze this.
Not understanding that being 100% tie-off is good for you is NOT the issue. Everyone agrees on this, just like the mice agreed and praised the idea of a bell on the cat. Repeating over and over “100% tie-off” does not make it happen. It actually makes people think tower climbers must be suicidal, forgetful or something like that. If you are tie-off and fall, you won’t hit the deck. Every tower climber knows this!
So the question is: why are tower climbers not tying off? Or more specifically: why are tower climbers not staying tied-in?
There are two straightforward answers:
- Tower Climbers do not know how to maneuver efficiently (fast and safely) on the tower while maintaining a 100% connection.
- The actual towers do not provide permanent safety systems to rig and move throughout the structure and add-on accessories.
Wally Reardon, a third generation veteran tower climber, said that when he was climbing he often found it “next to impossible” to be in compliance and meet employers’ quick turnaround expectations. When free-climbing, Reardon said it took about two days or so to get a job done; when staying tied to the structure and wearing heavy safety equipment, the same job could take five to seven days. “It’s a dangerous climbing technique that often occurs within clear view of on-site supervisors. Even the safest people I’ve worked with in the industry eventually will cave to it,” he said about the pressure to use such shortcuts.
Reardon comments and those from many others that I have personally interviewed, confirm my theory. Tower climbers are not being well trained… that is, technically trained and most towers do not provide anchors and safety features for the climber.
Most courses do not cover skills that apply to the actual climbing and maneuvering, particularly on today’s overloaded towers. Just ask any tower climber about this and most likely they will confirm what I’m saying. Their main training is some sort of prevention: safety meetings, checking their gear and keeping a record of its use, to mention a few. Theory and more theory! Maybe some accidents have been avoided thanks to these provisions but we will never know. What we do know is that most accidents have not been related to them.
Tower climbers are falling because they do not know how to maneuver safely and time-efficiently around the tower while maintaining their connections. They also don’t have the technical know-how to identify or construct safe anchor points. As an excuse to their lack of knowledge and/or skills, they will always say: “It was time pressure that made me free climb”. However, if they had more time to get the job done, they will probably do the same thing in the same way, although maybe more carefully.
Class curriculums need to get more technical, and so do the tower climbers. Tower climbers’ status needs to be raised to become technicians. They not only need to be trained; they need to be well trained for the problems they are encountering on a daily basis. Then, and only then, it will be possible for them to move safely and rapidly while being 100% tied-off. So yes, it is possible to “bell the cat”.
Another idea to solve the cat problem for the mice would be to get a dog! This would be the equivalent of redesigning and restructuring the towers with the climbers in mind.
Tower climbing is a harsh job. Workers maneuver at heights throughout a maze of accessories, brackets, lines and bolts (to name a few), were gear, clothing and body parts get snagged, ripped or cut off. Sometimes they face exactly the opposite and they are surrounded by almost nothing, except one beam, air and lots of exposure. And this is just to get to their working area! Many times they have to raise and lower heavy gear, make wire connections, take pictures, and more, while being exposed to the weather and to radiation from the antennas. Then, of course, they have to get back down.
Adding fixed safety gear and regulating the installation of all accessories added to the towers will help to control this outbreak of accidents and fatalities.
To name a few:
- All towers should always have an upper section of at least six feet above the last balcony free of accessories. This will be exclusively for the use of the climber to anchor, thus reducing fall factors and severe pendulums in case of a fall.
- The annoying and dangerous pegs installed on monopoles for climbing should be eliminated. A ladder or equivalent sturdy U bolts should be added.
- Any bracket or accessory added to the tower must also include a safe and simple access to its furthest point for maintenance.
- Antennas should be designed with the option of line connections at the top and bottom.
- There should be fixed safety lines or lifelines that not only allow vertical movement but horizontal as well.
- Bridge type structures that connect different sides of the tower should be installed.
- Any obstructions created by installing accessories to the tower that affect the climbers’ safety should be fined and removed immediately. Common cases are the coaxial lines running over the vertical lifeline.
Lots of work, money and time will be needed. In the long run, all three areas will benefit — work will get easier, and time and money will be saved. More significantly, accidents will be prevented and tower climbers lives will be saved.