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Fall prevention | Utilities | Injury prevention

Communication tower safety

As the number of structures needing upgrades has increased, so have worker deaths

May 23, 2014

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Key points

  • As the demand for new and upgraded communication towers has increased, the industry has struggled to find workers who are qualified to climb towers.
  • OSHA is investigating the contracting process that wireless carriers and general contractors use to hire workers. Experts say it is not always clear who is responsible for ensuring safety gear is used and safety procedures are followed.
  • The majority of recent communication tower deaths are linked to inadequate or lack of fall protection, leading to concerns about the industry’s pressure on workers and the safety cultures at these worksites.

Would you be willing to perform a job that requires you to climb a 2,000-foot tower simply to help people download wireless data faster?

With cell phone use skyrocketing in recent years, more workers are needed to upgrade communication towers, which present unique and serious hazards. According to OSHA, 13 workers died at communication tower worksites in 2013 – more than the previous two years combined – with the majority of these deaths attributed to inadequate or lack of fall protection. When Safety+Health went to press, the trend appeared to be continuing, with seven deaths reported so far in 2014, according to OSHA.

In a video shown during a National Association of Tower Erectors conference that took place Feb. 24-27, OSHA administrator David Michaels said communication tower workers have a 25- to 30-times greater risk of dying on the job than the average U.S. worker.

“This is clearly unacceptable,” Michaels said in the video.

Communication tower hazards

Why are fatalities increasing now?

Part of the reason is more exposure, according to Jim Stewart, a fall protection trainer and safety professional with Denver-based Antero Resources.

With the advent of cell phones and other mobile devices, the number of communication towers capable of broadcasting wireless signals increased dramatically in the past 30 years, OSHA states. When smartphones were introduced in the 2000s, consumers began demanding faster speeds and larger data capacities for their mobile devices – leading to needed upgrades among towers.

Stewart believes many of these existing communication towers were never designed to be climbed in the first place. For example, he said many older towers do not feature fall protection fixtures to help make climbing safer. These fixtures include permanent horizontal and vertical lifelines or anchorage points throughout the tower that would make it easier to attach safety harnesses.

OSHA notes that other hazards, such as falling objects and structural collapses, can injure or kill tower workers. Crews also work on many of these towers in inclement weather, making for slippery climbs.

Responsibility for safety

The National Association of Tower Erectors and OSHA have developed requirements and standards for training, safety gear and other safety practices when working on communication towers, including standards for climber training and checklists that contractors can use to ensure subcontractors are qualified to perform a certain task.

“If standards are adhered to, if training is followed and if the equipment is used properly, it is an extremely safe industry,” said Todd Schlekeway, executive director of NATE.

However, Stewart said it is not always clear who is responsible for the safety and health of communication tower workers. Is it the wireless carriers? The tower owners? The contractors? The subcontractors?

This is not a new concern: A 2001 safety alert from NIOSH detailed failures in training, equipment and safety practices at multiple levels of the contracting chain following the investigations of a string of communication tower fatalities in the late 1990s.

Stewart claims it is not entirely fair to fully blame the employers. He gave the following example: An electrical services company with an excellent safety record is hired by general contractors to perform electrical maintenance on a group of communication towers. Those workers previously only had ever climbed 20 or 30 feet off the ground, but they need to climb as high as 200 feet to perform the required maintenance. In this case, Stewart questions the tower designers who placed the electrical components so high up without appropriate fall protection anchorage points.

In his video address, Michaels said OSHA inspectors will begin looking more closely into the contractors and subcontractors used at worksites where incidents occurred.

“We will be taking a hard look at the safety requirements that flow down through the contracts and how owners and contractors ensure that everyone involved meets these requirements,” he said.

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