Telecommunications is the act of communicating with others through the use of electronic equipment like telephones, computer modems, satellites and fibre optic cables. Telecommunications systems comprise telecommunications cables from the user to the local switching office (local loops), the switching facilities which provide the communications connection to the user, the trunks or channels that transmit calls between the switching offices and, of course, the user.
During the early to mid-twentieth century, telephone exchanges, electromechanical switching systems, cables, repeaters, carrier systems and microwave equipment were introduced. After this occurrence, telecommunications systems spread to the industrialized areas of the world.
From the 1950s to 1984, technological advances continued to appear. For example, satellite systems, improved cable systems, the use of digital technology, fibre optics, computerization and video telephony were introduced throughout the communications industry. These changes allowed for the expansion of telecommunications systems throughout more areas of the world.
In 1984 a court ruling in the United States led to the breakup of the telecommunications monopoly held by American Telegraph and Telephone (AT&T). This breakup coincided with many rapid, major changes in the technology of the telecommunications industry itself.
Until the 1980s telecommunications services were considered to be public services operating within a legislative framework that provided monopoly status in virtually all countries. Along with the development of economic activity, the advent of new technologies has led to the privatization of the telecommunications industry. This trend culminated in the divestiture of AT&T and the deregulation of the US telecommunications system. Similar privatization activities are underway in a number of other countries.
Since 1984, technological advances have produced and expanded telecommunications systems that can provide universal service to all people throughout the world. This occurs as telecommunications technology is now converging with other information technologies. Related fields such as electronics and data processing are involved.
The impact of the introduction of new technology on employment has been mixed. Without question, it has reduced levels of employment and produced the de-skilling of jobs, radically altering the tasks of telecommunications workers as well as the qualifications and experience required of them. However, it is anticipated by some that employment growth will occur in the future as a result of the new business activity stimulated by the deregulated telecommunications industry that will produce many highly skilled jobs.
Occupations within the telecommunications industry can be categorized as either skilled craft or clerical work. Craft jobs include cable splicers, installers, outside plant technicians, central office technicians and frame technicians. These jobs are highly skilled, particularly as a result of the new technological equipment. For example, employees must be very proficient in the electrical, electronics and/or mechanical fields as they relate to the installation, service and maintenance of telecommunications equipment. Training is acquired through classroom and on-the-job training.
Clerical occupations include directory assistance operators, customer service representatives, account representatives and sales clerks. In general these tasks involve the operation of communications equipment such as VDUs private branch exchange (PBX) and facsimile machines which are used to establish local and/or long distance connections, perform business office work inside or outside the workplace and handle sales contacts with customers.
Hazards and Controls
The occupational safety and health hazards within the telecommunications industry can be categorized by the type of tasks or services performed.
Building and construction operations
In general, the same risks occur as in construction and building operations. However, several noteworthy activities which are specific to telecommunications include working at heights on poles or pylons, installing telecommunications wiring systems and excavating for cable laying. The usual means of protection, such as climbing gaffs, safety harnesses, lines and raise platforms and proper shoring for excavations, are applicable in telecommunications. Often, this work is performed during emergency repairs made necessary by storms, landslides or floods.
The safe use of electricity and electrical equipment is extremely important when performing telecommunications work. The normal preventive measures against electrocution, electric shock, short circuits and fires or explosions are fully applicable to telecommunications. Also, a serious source of danger may arise when telecommunications and electricity cables are within close proximity to one another.
Cable laying and maintenance
A significant safety and health concern is cable laying and maintenance. Work on underground cables, pipelines and jointing chambers involves handling heavy cable drums and pulling cables into pipelines with power-driven winches and cable equipment as well as cable splicing or jointing and insulation or waterproofing. During cable splicing and insulation jobs, workers suffer exposure to health hazards such as lead, solvents and isocyanates. Preventive measures include use of the least toxic chemicals, adequate ventilation and PPE. Often, maintenance and repair work is performed in confined spaces like manholes and vaults. Such work necessitates special ventilation equipment, harness and lifting equipment and the provision of a worker stationed above ground who is able to perform emergency cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and rescue activities.
Another health and safety concern is working with fibre optic telecommunications cables. Fibre optic cables are being installed as an alternative to lead and polyurethane-encased cables because they carry many more communications transmission and they are much smaller in size. Health and safety concerns involve potential burns to the eyes or skin from exposure to the laser beam when cables become disconnected or broken. When this occurs, protective engineering controls and equipment should be provided.
Also, cable installation and maintenance work performed in buildings involves potential exposure to asbestos products. Exposure occurs as a result of the deterioration or break-up of asbestos products like pipes, patching and taping compounds, floor and ceiling tiles and reinforcing fillers in paints and sealants. During the late 1970s, asbestos products were banned or their use was discouraged in many countries. Adherence to a worldwide prohibition will eliminate exposure and resultant health disorders for future generations of workers, but there are still large amounts of asbestos to contend with in older buildings.
Telegraph workers use VDUs and, in some cases, telegraph equipment to perform their work. A frequent hazard associated with this type of work is upper extremity (particularly hand and wrist) musculoskeletal cumulative trauma. These health problems may be minimized and prevented with attention to ergonomic work stations, work environment and work organization factors.
Automatic switching and connecting circuits are the mechanical operations components of modern telecommunications systems. Connections are generally made by microwave and radio frequency waves in addition to cables and wires. Potential hazards are associated with microwave and radio frequency exposures. According to available scientific data, there is no indication that exposure to most types of radiation-emitting telecommunications equipment is directly linked to human health disorders. However, craft employees may be exposed to high levels of radio frequency radiation while working in close proximity to electrical power lines. Data have been collected that suggest a relationship between these emissions and cancer. Further scientific investigations are being conducted to more clearly determine the seriousness of this hazard as well as appropriate prevention equipment and methods. In addition, health concerns have been associated with emissions from cellular telephone equipment. Further research is being conducted to draw conclusions regarding potential health hazards.
The vast majority of telecommunications services are performed with the use of VDUs. Work with VDUs is associated with the occurrence of upper extremity (particularly hand and wrist) musculoskeletal cumulative trauma disorders. Many telecommunications unions, such as the Communications Workers of America (US), Seko (Sweden) and the Communication Workers Union (United Kingdom), have identified catastrophic rates of VDU workplace musculoskeletal cumulative trauma disorders among the workers they represent. Proper design of the VDU workplace with attention to work station, work environment and work organization variables will minimize and prevent these health problems.
Additional health concerns include stress, noise and electrical shock.