Since the first telecoms began connecting calls, worker safety has been a balancing act, as companies weigh the right amount of training and equipment against the bottom line.
The old Ma Bell even had a plaque in each office – according to Gerald Leary, vice president of Boston-based IBEW Local 2222 -- which stated that no job, no matter how major, was more important than safety.
And while the fundamentals of how to provide a safe environment have changed little – good equipment coupled with good training – Leary worries that some companies no longer take that motto to heart.
"There are some people in the industry doing a great job, and there are some companies that don't do anything," he said. He is particularly concerned about cost-cutting as telecoms hunker down to weather a slow economy and increased competition from cable companies. "It's becoming such a paper-thin industry [as far as] profits, that [it's a case of] the cheaper the better."
The danger is particularly strong for the wireless industry as companies push to roll out their 3G and 4G networks. Between April 12 and May 16, Fortune reported, six workers died from falls while working on towers.
Other dangers include electrocution and vehicle accidents.
According to Ken Flechler, president of Greenwood, S.C.-based SKP International, a workplace safety consultancy, the majority of safety concerns can be addressed with proper equipment and training.
"And equipment is always the No. 1 area I would direct them in," Flechler said. "If they don't have the equipment, the training won't help."
Keeping up with Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) regulations is a good start, he said. OSHA makes frequent critical updates to its safety regulations, such as the move a few years ago from a positioning belt to a five-point harness for bucket-truck workers.
But many problems come from simple lack of maintenance or lack of proper inventory of the basics, Flechler said.
"Most telecommunications companies provide the required equipment," he said. "You always come across things like voltage detectors not being certified, and they require the technician to identify those kinds of issues. It's more of a random thing."
Enforcement of daily inspections is critical to spotting these problems early on and making sure workers do not go out into the field unprepared. This requires regular training that ingrains inspections into corporate culture.
Leary said most of the major telecoms, particularly Verizon and AT&T, have robust training programs. Smaller companies are not always so diligent, particularly if they are new entrants into the market. He said that telecoms are also turning to third-party contractors as competition heats up between traditional telecoms and cable companies.
"You have a lot of one- and two-man shops that are wiring whole offices," Leary said, adding that in many states these contractors do not even need to be licensed. "It's also safety for the customer, the public and everyone else that's lacking."
Leary advocates that states implement independent certification for telecommunications workers – as with plumbers or electricians -- to ensure that a single standard applies to all installations.
"That's one of our main objectives -- safety," he said. "We've had three fatalities in the past 24 months, so safety is always on our mind."