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Archives> January 2001 > The State of ENG Safety

Five years ago I presented an ENG Safety presentation at the National Press Photographer's Newsvideo Workshop in Oklahoma. I had a tape of Potomac Television Services Corp. employee Al Battle, who was killed while rushing to send a live shot back for CNN. I brought a variety of overhead transparencies showing police reports, news accounts, and safety data.

Included was a well-researched history of elevated structure/power line accidents, and descriptions of laws covering clearance and training mandates. 

To me, the deadly silence among the 350 people in that dark, circular amphitheater was either good or bad news. I wasn't sure if they were asleep or scared.

After my presentation, about a dozen people came down to talk to me. One told of a few accidents. Another, a close call he survived, ashamed to tell his boss. A third was in tears, telling me she was there when Battle got it, and so scared that nobody would ever know what really got him; we'd all just forget. 

They were scared. 

Those who have learned about Battle, understood why he died, and shared that information with their peers have done a great job trying to teach others to watch out for overhead lines. They have many more tools to use now. Broadcasters should use them.

Those who haven't learned are those to which the saying, "those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it" applies. Unfortunately, it applies to many of today's van technicians, reporters, photographers, newsroom personnel, managers, stations, and their corporate owners.

Five years is more than enough time to have learned. In five, so many have learned about new equipment, walking stand-ups, and more. They could've learned power line dangers. Have they? 

Is saying everyone can be taught too optimistic? Well, in the previous decades, many were aware of the first accidents, with court cases, newspaper, and magazine accounts in the public domain. Cara Crosby, Don Hayford, and Bob Tierney may be unknown by many, but their incidents were publicized, like Battle's. Crosby and Hayford can still describe theirs. Tierney died in his. Perhaps some feared the industry would also forget him. Unfortunately, it did.

Blame Everybody

Can you blame the manufacturers? Yes. They knew. They were sued, but let the issue die; perhaps on the advice of attorneys who may have discouraged them from distributing the information which may have saved lives. They have suffered, too. 

Can you blame the corporations? Yes. They also knew. Crosby's station set goals of creating manuals, national safety campaigns, etc. Ten years later, it seemed as if the station had forgotten about its history as a manager, unaware of the station's history, was left to be searching outside for sources of safety data to create a manual. The supervisor stands heroic for being proactive before the eternal sin of a second accident. 

Two more examples: Tribune Broadcasting Company is presently appealing a court ruling ordering them to give one local union information regarding a station's safety training, and Fox Television ordered the brilliant website manual from WAGA off its website. Both are negatives toward the cause for safety, and are wastes of resources that could pay for safety materials many times over. "Closed for Renovations" has been posted on the website for over a year. Fox attorneys have never returned calls about this. Somewhat predictably, Fox station WTTG-TV had a major accident. One behaviorist theory is that people will do what their authorities do and not what they say. It seems to be somewhat illustrated by this example, as upon failure to promote safety, there was disregard, then an accident. 

Can you blame the unions? Yes. Where are they? What are they doing for safety? (Concern after an accident doesn't count.) If Unions don't have a comprehensive safety awareness program for their dues-paying members, or have an assessment of what working conditions exist at contracted workplaces, they may be under-serving members. Just two union locals are in touch with this author. One sponsors presentations. 

Can you blame organizations such as RTNDA, SBE, SMPTE, NAB, and others? Yes. They are in the best position to reach the people who need to know. Some are starting to get on the bandwagon for safety, although at RTNDA's recent convention, only six news professionals showed for a panel discussion on safety. (It was chaired by BAF's Mitch Farris, with Will-Burt's Steve Pinkley, Sigalarm CEO Lance Burney, and this author sitting.)

What about station employees themselves? The on-site news crews usually have the last clear chance of preventing accidents. If an employee who operates an ENG van has no awareness of power line dangers, they probably don't know to stay away. Simply put, an employee who is aware of the hazards wouldn't park under power lines with the intention of raising the truck's mast. Fellow colleagues should also be aware of and council those van ops who defeat safety devices. Safety equipment manufacturers can only provide the best solutions they know how. As much as they'd like to, they can't make people use them. 

Last of all, can you blame the immediate station employer? The answer is "yes" again. The question of location of truck Operator's Manuals is usually answered with uncertainty. Employees can't have a "last clear chance" to avoid dangers operating equipment for which they have insufficient education. This author suggests stations should be given 50 copies of operator manuals to pass to all who work on the truck with stations signing off on receiving them. This may help focus liability in a lawsuit, given the amount of well-written material in most manuals. It already worked once. 

Also, many states require employers to train employees on regulations covering equipment they operate. (OSHA cited and fined WTTG for not doing this.) Employees can be told of ENG hazards with the same intensity and frequency they are told not to drop a camera or smash up their company's vans. Resources such as engsafety.com, local power companies, and others have ample material. 

While the onus of hazard avoidance is really on employers, OSHA fines are only a fraction of the liability awards against manufacturers, as Workman's Compensation laws indemnify employers against employee suit. Unfortunately, in a macabre characteristic of the business model of TV, this system creates a disincentive for employers to care about safety, and any accident coverage and follow-up presents dramatic pictures and emotion-tugging drama, both potentially ratings-increasing events. There is little risk, unless a non-employee is injured.

Last of all, too many lightning safety stories illustrate lax attitudes. News managers who have ordered truck ops to have masts up in lightning conditions need to add the words "willful" "negligent" and "criminal charges" to their vocabulary before OSHA does. Lightning HAS struck ENG trucks, and employers can have criminal charges brought against them for actions of willful negligence.

Many More Tools And A Light At The End Of The Tunnel

I must say that there are those who do educate and train about safety. The enthusiasm from some station owners, general managers, and news crews leading right out to the end of the A/V cables on the live shot has been great! Safety manuals have been created at many stations using digital photographs, multiple typefaces, and creative bindings. 

A growing list of safety tapes is also now available (see page 48), with literally thousands of copies in circulation. Using these materials to periodically remind employees goes a long way toward showing the van op and/or the reporter that their employer cares about them, the safety of the public, station property, and avoiding accidents.

Both Sigalarm and Will-Burt have created detection systems that have been adopted by vehicle integrators as alertness enhancement devices. (see related story on page 55) Alertness will save lives, especially coupled with employee education and other safety devices manufacturers have been building into vehicles all along. 

It's good to see that the industry is becoming more professional regarding education and training. More station owners now realize that accidents cost far more to remedy than education costs to provide. For every documented accident, there were many close calls averted because of better judgment...and there are way too many close calls. 

We must never forget Don Hayford, Bob Tierney, Cara Crosby, Al Battle, Andrew Austin, Dan Nelson, Valerie Vance, Dave Bingham, Kimberly Arms, Geoff Fisher, Adrienne Alpert, Geoff Manifold, Peter MacNaughton and the hundreds of other broadcast vehicle operators who have been killed, injured, or frightened in the line of duty.

And let's also not forget to say a prayer for Fox, Tribune, many union locals and broadcast organizations that aren't quite "getting it" yet. Hopefully their safety enlightenment days will come soon, as it has for many professionals. The industry's live capabilities are better than ever. As we actively hope ENG helicopters don't go down or operators in trucks aren't electrocuted, we should also actively work to prevent accidents. Safety saves lives, which is to say, no safety may destroy them. 

And in the end, if you're like those at the workshop who "got it," you're scared too.

Bell, Mark. "The State of ENG Safety: The Industry Has To Do More To Prevent Tragedy." Online Daily Television Broadcast [Online] [cited 12 January 2001]. Available HTTP: http://www.tvbroadcast.com/issues/2000/safety/1020.1.htm

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