Two years later, industry assesses impact of CAL-OSHA rules
For the amount of everyday work and road miles electronic newsgathering vans put in every day, they have been involved in relatively few accidents.
But as Doug McKay, national sales manager for Clearwater Fla.-based Frontline Communi- cations said, "unfortunately, they were severe. When you do put the mast up into power lines, you pay a heavy price. People have limbs amputated. People die."
In response to these horrific, high-profile occurrences, approximately two and a half years ago, the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board (CAL-OSHA) established the first set of regulations establishing guidelines for ENG van construction and operation.
Among the CAL-OSHA guidelines specific to ENG are the use of switches that require constant pressure to raise the mast; level indicators to ensure that the vehicle is level; spotlights for operating the mast at night; audio and visual warning indicators to prevent moving the vehicle while the mast is raised; and extensive employee training about the hazards of electrical energy in relation to ENG vehicle operations.
TV Technology spoke with four ENG vehicle builders about the state of news van safety since CAL-OSHA. Each of them noted that they build CAL-OSHA compliance into their news vehicles whether they are delivered to California or other areas of the United States.
AS CALIFORNIA GOES...
"California sometimes leads the way in a lot of things," said Howard Kirsch, director of sales and marketing for Concord, Calif.-based E-N-G Mobile Systems. "I think California OSHA had led the way in safety in this country in a lot of areas, including ENG safety."
In fact, the van builders say their news vehicles were built more-or-less in line with CAL-OSHA prior to the regulations. Our ENG vans "always were CAL-OSHA compliant, less a few placards and things that we've adjusted to meet the new requirements," said Tom Jennings, broadcast sales manager for Wolf Coach in Auburn, Mass.
While van makers say they were already paying attention to such safety concerns, CAL-OSHA may have helped their customers get religion on the subject.
In the past "customers would have creative folks on their staff that would override the safety features that we would install on the trucks," said McKay. "What's had to happen is our customers have had to adopt a company policy to say, 'if you're going to operate this ENG van, you need to play by the rules.'"
However, Mark Bell, who has written and lectured on news van safety and manages the Web site, engsafety.com, said van operators often still feel intense pressure from those back at the newsroom to get the van up and operating, and can experience "task-overload" that can lead to mental errors. To require operators to pay attention to the mast while it deploys, CAL-OSHA mandated constant pressure switches.
But Bell noted that some companies have in-house cultures that encourage operators to find a way around such safety devices, describing one operator involved in a mast-electrical line accident who was taught to jerry-rig such a switch.
"He had actually been taught by his station to get the generator going, and then move the lever to move the mast up, and secure it with a rubber strap," he said. "That was in the OSHA notes in the investigation."
Hopefully such practices have become less commonplace with the new regulations in place.
"Customers are proactively purchasing safety devices, warning devices, and spending extra money to go the extra mile to try to make the trucks safer," said Ron Crockett, president of San Antonio-based Shook Mobile Technology.
One such device is the Will-Burt D-TEC AC Field Detection System, which has been available since 1998. Sitting atop a news van's mast, the system is both an overhead sonar detector and alternating current detector.
Will Burt says it has begun a process to enhance the sonar and AC detection abilities with the D-TEC II. Though the device is undergoing field-testing and not yet in production, the company touts the D-TEC II as another important safety device.
WATCH YOUR WEIGHT
Ed Williams, director of engineering for KPTV, the Fox affiliate in Portland, Ore., led a disciplined ENG safety program for years before the CAL-OSHA regulations, and he wonders how much CAL-OSHA really hit home.
"I haven't really gotten a feel from anyone that CAL-OSHA has made any impact beyond the first couple of weeks when the announcement came out, and everybody said 'we better get the new gear.' Beyond that I really don't hear about it too much," he said.
All van makers TV Technology spoke with said one issue outside the CAL-OSHA regulations remains an area of concern: news vehicles that exceed their gross vehicle weight (GVW) limitations.
"We're very, very conscious of truck weight and GVW, truck safety, so we try to use, as best we can, the lightest, more durable materials to keep the truck weight down," said Kirsch.
"We have customers demanding more and more hardware in these news vans, and now we're reaching the maximum weight limits," said Crockett. "We build them, as does everyone, to be safe when they leave our facility, but we have no control over what they put in them once they get out of here."
If it looks like they will overload the vehicle once it's delivered, "then you sort of advise them to go with the next chassis up," McKay said.
Jennings pointed to an additional problem. "There are manufacturers out there who are re-rating the OEM GVWR on vehicles and sending them into the field that way," he said, making tire, spring, and other changes to the vehicle.
"The vehicle was designed to handle a certain amount of weight, and that is, by far, the more critical issue at this moment than the CAL-OSHA safety," he said. "[It's] just dead wrong. If not illegal, it's extremely risky."
Crockett said he thinks one way of lowering news vehicle weight as well as the center-of-gravity is through power take-off (PTO) generators that mount in the vehicle frame and use the vehicle's engine for power instead of a separate engine.
"Because they're lighter in weight than the gasoline or diesel-driven units, that saves payload, which gives us more capacity aboard without keeping them up at the maximum weight," he said.
"There are some PTO generators that we can do 12, even 15 kW and fit them under the truck in the frame rails. That doesn't take up internal space, where these things may weigh 200 pounds," he said. Conventional generators bigger than 7 kW "can easily weigh 400 pounds, so we can save a couple of hundred pounds."
ENG Safety's Bell gives the post CAL-OSHA period this mid-term safety grade: "Has there been an official rifle shot across the bow of the ship called 'electronic newsgathering?' By all means. Is it being respected by corporations? Yes," he said.
But is it enough? "I sometimes feel that in the industry in general, there's not quite enough spent for prevention as could be," Bell said, "and the dollars for an accident are huge. So it's really kind of a penny-wise/pound-foolish approach."
Ultimately though, Bell said, the van accidents are human tragedies. "Lives can be affected for generations."
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