California gets serious about safety
State leads the way with upcoming live van regulations~

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Kristi Nelson

 Efforts to get the story out faster can lead to shortcuts on safety -- and this means danger in the workplace for thousands of electronic-news-gathering workers and bystanders where news happens. There have been many accidents attributed to news van antennas hitting power lines, but three severe accidents in May 2000 prompted action. As a result, California is on the verge of passing the nation's first safety regulations for TV live vans.

"It's definitely a victory for broadcast workers across the country," said Gena Stinnet, KABC-TV, Los Angeles, videotape editor and president of National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians-Communications Workers of America Local 57 in Los Angeles. "California is often a leader in health and safety regulations. Since this really is a national issue, we're hoping other states will follow suit and pass similar regulations to protect their workers."

Ms. Stinnet was propelled into action when Adrienne Alpert, a KABC reporter, was severely burned when her news van antenna rose into a power line two years ago. She lost her right foot and left hand and portions of her left foot and right hand. That same month, three members of an ENG crew in Alexandria, Va., and a photographer in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, were injured when news van masts made contact with high-voltage electric power lines.

Within three days of the KABC accident, members of local unions representing the broadcast industry met to discuss what could be done. "We wanted to create a floor of safety where no employer could beat the other to a news story because they took shortcuts with safety," said Ms. Stinnet.

The group invited employers from the Los Angeles market to a meeting on how to set uniform standards. Unfortunately, very few employers were willing to take part in that process.

The group then decided to petition for regulations that would provide better safety standards. Together, NABET-CWA, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees submitted its petition to the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Once in Cal-OSHA's hands, a committee was formed to develop potential regulations. "We had an advisory committee of quite a number of stakeholders -- employees and employers, manufacturers and safety experts from around the country," said John MacLeod, executive officer for the standards board of Cal-OSHA. "I believe the benefit of having an advisory committee of stakeholders develop the proposal really helps in achieving a consensus."

"Even though they didn't step up to the plate initially when we invited them to, once the process started, the employers had their opportunity to articulate their concerns in the committee process, and we were able to work out a compromise," said Ms. Stinnet.

The proposed regulations call for new or improved safety equipment inside ENG vehicles, including continuous pressure switches for raising the mast, level indication devices, illumination above vans, warning signs, and audible and visible warnings if vans are moved without first stowing the mast.

New rules would also call for safety manuals, a code of safe practices and annual training of ENG workers in vehicle operation, antenna setup and teardown and emergency procedures. A requirement that vehicles be inspected on a quarterly basis, which broadcasters said is too stringent, is one of the last issues still to be resolved.

Though the legal process isn't yet completed, Mr. MacLeod expects the regulations to go into effect early next year.

Mark Bell, a journalist who has been an ENG safety advocate for eight years, said that is about as fast as the government can work.

"I think they've not only been responsive to the unions, but they've been inspired by the cooperation the corporations have shown. The corporations are being very sensitive to this. They don't want it to happen again," he said.

Though Mr. Bell has been documenting serious accidents for several years, no real statistics are available. Even so, there's no doubt that for every serious accident that is documented, there are many less severe accidents or near misses that aren't.

"I'll never know the amount of injuries," said Mr. Bell. "I can tell you a lot of people lie about it, and there are a lot of employers that tell their injured employees, 'Let's just keep this quiet, and by the way, that raise you requested came through.'"

Once the regulations pass in California, unions are planning action to get similar rules adopted in other states. "We've got a national NABET committee that is researching this area," said Ms. Stinnet. "Once California is successful, they're poised to get this out to our sister locals. We're hopeful this will have a domino effect. There's more work to be done, but this is a really positive first step."