For ENG-van safety

California proposals could be nation's first regulations

The massive burns and injuries suffered by KABC-TV Los Angeles reporter Adrienne Alpert two years ago when the mast of an electronic newsgathering van she was working from hit 34,500-V power lines cost her a hand, a foot and parts of her remaining limbs.

Her injuries—and others from accidents in several states during a remarkably brief period in 2000—spurred Southern California's five labor unions working in TV news to initiate efforts toward the nation's first set of regulations for news vans. Proposed safety regulations would require training, equipment and inspections in an effort to prevent incidents like Alpert's, which are a leading cause of industrial accidents and injuries—especially from contact with overhead wires (see box for a list of regulations).

The proposal has taken a bit more than a year to reach its current stage and could be a round of comments and a public hearing away from enactment—a fairly rapid pace for negotiating the bureaucratic obstacle course. Unions credit the fervor and safety concerns generated by Alpert's and other accidents, as well as cooperation from government and area broadcasters.

Safety experts like Cohasset, Mass.-based Mark Bell have long noted that the victims of accidents may not always be limited to members of the industry and that injury to passers-by or spectators near an electrically charged area could lead to massive liability.

Certification and training, says Bell, are a necessity. "This is about professionalism, and all sides need to step up their safety awareness and practices," he contends. "Do we need more reminders that home-grown in-house safety practices, as have been used for almost 30 years, don't work?"

Bell also urges that the unions stop defending people who are involved in safety-related suspensions. "Companies need backing, too," he says. "Unsafe is unsafe."

Changes required by the present proposal, according to documents filed by California's Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board, would add an average of $1,500 in additional costs for a new ENG vehicle, no more than $3,000 to retrofit an existing one.

Early proposals from the five unions involved would have been more stringent, requiring vans to be equipped with alarms warning of the proximity of live wires, and would have required at least two crew members for operation of an ENG van. The unions are the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the NAB Employees and Technicians, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees, and the Communications Workers of America.

Conrad Tolson, of California's Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board, says neither proposal could win a consensus of the drafting committee—which comprised representatives of TV labor and management, along with representatives from public utilities and government. The committee considered not only the costs of such proposals but also their lack of standardization and demonstrated safety improvements.

Not everyone agrees. One of two comments that the Standards Board needs to address is from the Sierra Vista, Arizona-based Hazard Information Foundation (HIFI), which advocates installing proximity alarms on masts. HIFI recommends that if, as with overhead electrical wires, the hazard cannot be eliminated by design, guard or warning, "then rely on human protective gear."

The other comment is a clarification sought by ABC regarding quarterly inspections. Bell is concerned at how a company of ABC's size can't figure out how to spend an hour every three months to inspect a vehicle.

Truck manufacturers find themselves doing what they can to help limit potential injuries and deaths. Jack Feldman, Shook Electronics sales rep, Latin America, says his company has been endorsing the use of two products to help deal with the issue of ENG safety: the Wilburt DeTect and SigAlarm High Voltage Power Line Proximity Warning System. He says the additional cost is around $2,800. HIFI endorses the SigAlarm.

The Wilburt device, Feldman says, has three functions: a sonar that will detect obstructions, an electric-field detector and an angle meter. "If the vehicle has too much tilt, you can't raise the mast." The "tilt" problem was a factor in the accident that maimed Alpert: Had the vehicle been level, the mast would have cleared the overhead wires, but the vehicle was parked on a sloping surface.

But training is paramount, maintains Raymond Enama, senior program manager and senior instructor for San Diego Gas & Electric: "If Adrienne Alpert had been trained and understood the hazards, she would not have gotten injured." Alpert left the van after its mast contacted a power line; if she had stayed inside, she likely would have escaped injury.

Enama has seen plenty of accidents that resulted from someone's thinking that, as long as the wires aren't touched, they're safe. However, the wires aren't insulated and have an electrical field that can be deadly.

"For 50,000 volts and below, you need to keep operating equipment 10 feet away," he says.