Giving fiber the respect it deserves

When working with optical fiber, the best tools are those a technician carries in his head: training and common sense.

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When working with optical fiber, the best tools are those a technician carries in his head: training and common sense.

Catherine Varmazis

Like Rodney Dangerfield, fiber might well claim that it "don`t get no respect." Well, at least not enough respect. As optical fiber makes deeper inroads into premises networks and to the desktop, safe termination practices become more and more important. Yet, installers and others working with fiber often exhibit a cavalier attitude toward safety. While the tools required to terminate fiber have not undergone radical changes, "what has changed is that there`s more and more use of fiber in the marketplace," says Tom Reinert, national sales manager with Clauss Fiberoptic/Telcom Div. (Fremont, OH), "and many industry leaders, in our opinion, just don`t place enough emphasis on the issue of safety."

What are the safety issues concerning optical fiber? Some of the very qualities that make it a terrific transmission medium--its clarity and small diameter--can make it hazardous in the hands of the untrained technician. The process of stripping fiber-optic cable and scribing and cleaving the fiber before termination creates very sharp glass shards, or splinters, that are hard to see because fiber is colorless. The splinters pose several dangers:

•They can fly into eyes that are unprotected by safety goggles. If this happens, even a doctor is hard-pressed to find the glass because it is virtually invisible against the eyeball.

•Fiber splinters can stick to the oil on a technician`s hands. Later, if he rubs his eyes, a splinter can get into them. Or if he eats with unwashed hands, he may ingest it.

•Shards can also stick to clothing, where they may be transported home, posing a danger to family members or pets.

•If food or drink is present in the work area, shards can accidentally be ingested.

•The most common type of accident involving fiber is that it pricks the skin, much like a wooden splinter, and may lead to infection.

Due to another of fiber`s unique characteristics--the fact that it does not conduct electricity--its potential as a health hazard is sometimes misunderstood. Many people working with fiber today were originally trained in the electrical industry, where they learned electrical safety. Because they cannot get electrocuted by fiber, some people "tend to think it`s just glass and it`s no big deal," surmises Reinert.

Regardless of one`s background, however, the best weapon against getting hurt is proper training. Do fiber technicians always get the training they need? Not in the opinion of John Bates, BICSI trainer with MCT C-Tel (Columbus, OH), a wholly owned subsidiary of Black Box (Lawrence, PA). "Ever since we went through divestiture, training has gone out the window," he says. "The Bell system had some wonderful training in place. If you worked for one of the Bell operating companies before divestiture in 1984, you knew exactly what your processes were regarding safety procedures."

After the breakup of the Bell system, Bates argues, many of the startup companies that got into the cabling-contracting business eliminated training programs as a cost-cutting measure. "Knowledge is stuck in an individual`s head and you don`t see much of a return on it," he continues. Because training took a hit, "you`ve got a lot of individuals who are out there performing fiber-optic tasks and, although they`re following procedures, they`re not exactly sure why. And often they haven`t been adequately trained in the safe handling of fiber."

Another potential danger when working with fiber is the laser beam used to launch light into the optical fiber. Because many of these beams are infrared, and thus invisible to the naked eye, they pose a real danger. "Be sure your microscope has a filter that will block out any laser light," advises Larry Widgeon, president of KITCO Fiber Optics (Virginia Beach, VA), "because you wouldn`t want to pick up a fiber connector that`s live and stare at it with an unfiltered microscope; it would burn your retina. You want to make sure you`ve got a safety fiberscope or microscope."

Trade-show lapses

Products are not the only thing exhibited at trade shows. A nonchalant attitude toward fiber-optic safety is often on display, as well, according to Reinert. "You walk the floor at a trade show and you see supposedly trained, qualified technicians working with fiber but not wearing safety glasses. They generate fiber scraps in demonstrating the stripping and cleaving process and just leave them lying on the table or even blow them onto the floor. These are shards of glass!" he emphasizes. "When they get ready to close the show and the workmen are down on their hands and knees rolling up that carpet, it`s very easy for one of those guys to get a handful of glass."

Safe tools are certainly available, but it`s the lax attitude toward fiber safety that has to change. The training that can change those attitudes is available from various sources, including fiber-optic manufacturers, commercial training centers, and BICSI classes. But whether companies avail themselves of such training for their employees is the crux of the matter. However, the pendulum may finally be swinging back. Just as the bottom line led to cuts in training, Bates believes the bottom line is also the reason that training is again beginning to get the attention it deserves.

"In the latter 1990s, the industry has certainly turned around, and we`re starting to get back in line with proper procedures," he says. "Individuals have suffered accidents on the job site and it creates downtime and the expense the contractor doesn`t want to incur. If you`ve got to send someone to the emergency room or pull him off the job for any reason, you`re losing money. That`s when some companies come to the conclusion: `Gee whiz, maybe we should provide some sort of training here.` "

Safety kits

Judging by the availability of fiber-optic safety kits from more vendors, cabling contractors are increasingly using these basic tools. Four years ago, Clauss`s Reinert says, his company was the only one offering a fiber-optic safety kit. Today, they are available from many more vendors. Donna Salamone, technical service representative with Fiber Instrument Sales Inc. (FIS--Oriskany, NY), says her company assembled a fiber-optic safety kit in response to demand. "The kit was designed by a sales manager who realized that people were ordering the same group of items when they were getting started in fiber." The FIS kit includes a black mat, a disposal unit with a special opening that prevents fiber scraps from falling out, tweezers to pull out a fiber splinter if it pierces the skin, and a magnifying eyepiece.

In addition, the FIS kit includes an infrared-light-detection card that lets the technician test whether a port is emitting potentially harmful laser light. "If you look into the end of a connector emitting infrared light, you won`t see a light, and it doesn`t look or feel like anything," explains Salamone. "It`s not like lasers in the movies where you see a red beam--it`s infrared, which means your eye can`t detect it. But it can burn your retina. People are very nonchalant about their eyes, but if they didn`t have sight they wouldn`t be."

FIS`s kit also includes infrared warning labels that can be attached to live fiber-optic cable to caution people not to cut the fiber. "They often don`t realize that they`re opening up a fiber-optic box--they might think it`s an electrical panel," says Salamone. "Just by opening the box, you`re not exposing yourself to any danger. However, if you start looking into the bulkheads, which is what holds two connectors together, there could be laser light coming out of there."

For some people, simple is better. Bates says the "bare-bones, minimal" aspect of the Clauss kit makes it more usable for the cabling contractor. "Things are so competitive in the telecommunications industry," he explains, "and the hours budgeted for a project are so tight that it is often extremely difficult for the technician who`s on site to follow a comprehensive safety procedure or program." The Clauss kit contains a black work mat, safety glasses, buffered tweezers for splinter removal, bifurcated alcohol swipes, and a disposable fiber-scrap trash can. Once the container is full--which could take years--Clauss recommends that it be incinerated so all the fiber scraps melt into a harmless blob.

Comments Reinert, "Things are moving in the right direction, but it`s very slow. We`d like to see the industry leaders pay more attention to safety and train their own employees better on safety issues. I hate to see people get hurt when they don`t have to."

Perhaps the best advice comes from installer and trainer Bates: "Probably the most valuable tool anyone can have out there on site is your basic common sense when it comes to installation, splicing, or termination of fiber-optic cabling. We strongly advise that you have an experienced and well-trained technician performing fiber-optic tasks."

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In addition to a fiber-optic safety kit with a work mat, fiber scraps trash container, safety glasses, fiber splinter removal tweezers, and bifurcated swipes, Clauss offers two videos: "Fiberoptic Safety" and "Fiberoptic Tools."

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The best defense against fiber-related injuries is proper training such as that offered by LightTech, a division of KITCO Fiber Optics.

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Introduced earlier this year, Leviton`s fiber toolkit includes a 200x inspection scope with a special filter that guards the eye against infrared laser light in the 850- to 1550-nanometer range.

Thar she blows!

An alternative to traditional fiber installation, air-blown fiber (ABF) is a relatively new technology. Therefore, a potential hazard of this technique is not well-known. Larry Widgeon, president of KITCO Fiber Optics (Virginia Beach, VA), explains that generators are used to blow fiber-optic cable into microtubes, which form the distribution component of the network. Widgeon, whose company wrote the safety manual that accompanies the BloLite ABF system by BICC General Corp. (Willimantic, CT), explains: "My one concern is the generator used to blow the fiber. BICC General has explicit safety instructions not to blow the fiber with any more power than 140 pounds per square inch [psi]. But some of the installers get a hold of this thing and say, `I want to go further or faster,` and they soup it up or buy a compressor that would blow it at 500 psi, and they could have some explosions."

As with other fiber-optic procedures, installers should follow manufacturers` instructions and recommended safety procedures.

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