Recently, I have been working with one of the Fiber Optics Association’s (FOA) overseas instructors, who teaches a program in outside plant (OSP) fiber optic cable plant construction, to create a curriculum for all FOA schools. As someone involved in fiber optics for a long time, I’m amazed by how much I’ve learned about OSP construction, especially safety. Now when I watch construction going on or hear about it, I’m very aware of how often some aspects of safety seem to be ignored.
Part of the reason this is new to me is my focus has always started with pulling, splicing, terminating and testing cable. All those topics come after construction. Underground cable requires trenching or directional boring and burying conduit or fiber ducts before pulling the fiber optic cable. Direct buried cable can be laid in trenches dug beforehand or plowed in, if the ground is suitable. Aerial installations require poles or towers to hang cables. If there are poles, existing cables may need to be moved to allow installation of another cable. If there are no poles, considerable construction is necessary to place poles and string messenger wire for the fiber cables.
When you start looking at the actual construction, you realize that it’s not much different from construction of any type and workers are exposed to a large number of hazards associated with all kinds of construction. Workers should have appropriate personal protective equipment such as high-visibility vests, hard hats, steel-toed boots and the like.
Most construction is done along roadways, of course, meaning workers exposed to vehicle traffic and construction may require diversion of traffic from normal lanes. Temporary parking restrictions should be called out on the days listed in the permits for construction. In most areas, this requires permits from local authorities and sometimes a police officer is assigned to assist in directing traffic.
At minimum, the construction area should be marked with traffic cones and signs to alert drivers of the work. Also, consider bike riders and pedestrians and keep them away from the work areas. If lanes are closed and traffic must be reduced to one-way on a single lane, flag personnel should be used to direct traffic.
I recently watched a crew lashing a fiber optic cable to a messenger wire on poles running down a street near my home. There were two bucket trucks and a crew of four. They had hardhats and reflective vests and were putting cones behind the second truck, but they were blocking the driving lane and had no signs or flagging, requiring passing cars to go into the oncoming lane to get around them. They were also working with the buckets hanging over parked cars—glad it wasn’t mine!
Much of this OSP construction employs heavy equipment such as backhoes, augers, bucket trucks, cranes and specialized equipment used for microtrenching, directional boring, pulling ducts or cables. Every one of these pieces of equipment requires a trained operator with experience in how to use them safely.
Construction always involves working around buried utilities. Crews should start by calling 811 and bring in representatives of local utilities to help spot hazards. Utilities are not always where they are supposed to be, so crews should be experienced with the use of underground locating equipment. (See “What Lies Below,” June 2018.) Preferably, before digging with heavy equipment, pilot holes will be dug every hundred or so feet to confirm the area is clear.
Some of the stories about project problems are simple variations on the “backhoe fade” joke in fiber optics—backhoes cutting buried underground cables. I have seen photos of buckets dragging cables out of the ground and even an auger drilling holes for poles that caught a fiber optic cable and wound hundreds of meters of cable around the auger before the operator realized what they had done. Subcontractors for a major project recently punctured seven water mains in a year while directional boring.
Some of these stories end in tragedy. A contractor trenching for a fiber optic cable recently broke a gas main. It did not ignite where it was broken but filled local buildings, three of which exploded, killing a fireman evacuating the buildings.
If the work is not completed during the day, open construction must be barricaded and adequate warning signs, tape, etc., left to prevent vehicles or people from getting near the work site. If necessary, employ guards after work stops.
Safety in OSP construction is complicated and must be considered seriously. Managers must understand the rules, supervisors must enforce them and workers must follow them.