On Feb. 22, 1994, Al Battle was killed after raising the mast of his electronic news- gathering (ENG) van into a 19,000-volt power line. Because he and his producers were anxious to get a live shot, they did not take the necessary safety precaution of raising the mast a safe distance from the utility lines. As a result, Battle did not live to report the story.
This type of accident is one that employees from WJAR NBC-10 in Cranston, R.I., have taken steps to avoid. Well-aware of the dangers of going out in the field and being exposed to severe weather conditions, live wires and other hazards that go along with "live" reporting, the station's staff has developed a comprehensive work safety program tailor-made to the needs of reporters, producers and other staff members in the field.
As the first television station to receive the coveted OSHA Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) Star, WJAR staffers are proud of their safety accomplishments, but their pride and joy is the development of the ENG Safety Program, which trains field personnel on severe weather hazards, electrocution hazards and telescopic mast safety precautions.
A Multi-Prong Approach
What makes this program so special? Lisa Churchville, general manager and president of WJAR, credits the success of the program to its multimedia approach to training.
"There are many causes for injuries and illness with things that happen in the field, such as slipping, dealing with snow on the road or even repetitive muscle use," says Churchville. "It was necessary for us to build a program that holds multiple components."
The program is comprised of an online course, two videos ("Look Up and Live" and "National Press Photographers Association ENG Safety") and a live truck training session. The station has included a safety kit in each truck that includes a safety manual, earplugs, safety glasses, masks and other personal protective equipment, as well as a checklist an employee must mark off while inspecting the vehicle to make sure everything is intact.
Having the program taught through different media is important, according to Churchville, because everyone's learning style is unique. "Some people do well by doing, and others do well by watching," she points out.
In addition, there is no other television station in the area that has an equivalent safety program in place, according to Churchville, who says that NBC stations are required to provide some sort of EHS training.
Joseph Doris, WJAR's safety operations manager, is in charge of ensuring that every employee is informed about the station's safety program. He asks employees to watch the videos annually to refresh themselves on the safety rules.
The ENG program has been essential to the station, as its employees have seen their share of close calls in past years, he says. "A live truck in San Diego was burned to the ground when a TV crew was sent to cover a wildfire," Doris reveals. "They parked where they weren't supposed to. A fire truck had to rescue the team from the fire."
Flexibility is a Plus
The online courses, offered through General Electric (NBC-10's parent company), were added to the ENG program approximately 5 years ago. Although the online defensive driving courses are part of the ENG curriculum, there are other online training courses available depending on the person's job function. For instance, a cameraman might be asked to take an online training course on the ergonomically correct ways to hold a camera.
According to Churchville, such courses have been especially important as they give the employee more time to review the rules of safety. "It doesn't give the employee any embarrassment if they need to go back and review something they didn't understand during the live class," she says. "When it's just face-to-face, some people are shy to ask questions."
Another benefit to having the online component added to the program is that reporters can do it at their leisure, according to Joan Collins, EHS coordinator for WJAR. "It offers you complete training and it's interactive so the employee gets quizzed in the middle of each section," she says. "Reporters can schedule their training when they are on break or after covering their assignments and not sacrifice the importance of their job."
General Electric's Role
No stranger to receiving OSHA VPP recognition, General Electric, which considers itself to be the safest company in the United States, has pushed digitized training to all its sites, including NBC-10, as a means to save costs and time, according to Michael Vigezzi, global manager for VPP and safety programs for GE. (Editor's Note: GE was named one of America's Safest Companies by Occupational Hazards in 2002.)
For this reason, GE came up with the application PowerSuite, which allows individual operators to own, track and manage their EHS data in addition to monitoring their performance in real-time to meet corporate EHS expectations and legal-compliance requirements. Also, the Powersuite tool is linked to a library of EHS courses. As a repository to manage the training requirements, Powersuite is used to remind employees when they need to take their training courses.
Vigezzi notes that training can take as little as 20 minutes to 4 to 6 hours, if employees are taking courses in fall-protection or lockout/tagout, for example. Regardless of length, Vigezzi says GE monitors each training session closely.
"We are looking for retention and knowledge of information. The quizzes are there to give general awareness to our employees," he says. "In the more substantive portions (e.g., fall protection, lockout/tagout), if the employee incorrectly answers a question, they aren't given credit. The program will loop them back to the question they missed."
Industries across the board have been using online safety training for years, says Carl Potter, an independent management consultant and certified safety professional. Although he agrees that online training can be useful, he says it also has its drawbacks.
"Sometimes companies lean on it so much that they don't give people the time or place to discuss what's on it," he notes. "The best way to learn about job safety is through classroom training with an online course to complement it."
One of the drawbacks of having only online safety training is that some of the content may not be relevant to the person's job.
"A person working in the IT department of a construction company reading about fall-protection will not take the training as seriously, since it doesn't apply to them," he asserts.
A Sense of Community
Regardless of the type of training medium used, most safety experts believe that it's important to keep all levels of a company involved in its safety program. David Caswell, VPP manager for OSHA's Boston regional office, says that was what made NBC-10 worthy of earning the OSHA Star.
"Everyone at the station got involved in identifying the key hazards reporters and camera crews encounter while reporting on the scene," Caswell says. "When everyone gets included in the safety process, it is much easier to achieve a safer workplace."
Although Churchville is proud to have earned the OSHA Star, in the end, she says she just wants her employees to be proud to work in a station that is clean, safe and has nothing to hide.
"I want my employees to feel that they are only safer in church than at NBC-10," she says.