Fall prevention Utilities Injury prevention

Communication tower safety

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

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Photo: Henryk Sadura/iStock/Thinkstock

Tying off

OSHA data shows that many workers who died at communication tower worksites in 2013 were not tied off when they fell.

“There is no room for compromise when you’re working at elevated heights,” Schlekeway said. “Even if you’ve been in the industry a long time, you can’t afford to be complacent.”

Because no two communication towers are the same, Stewart said, different parts of the tower may meet the static load requirements of workers’ fall protection – so workers may not know where to tie off. He also said it is not always clear what fall protection safety standards these subcontractors should follow for their assignments. For example, the fall protection standards that construction industry subcontractors would typically rely on may not take into account the height and unique features of communication towers, Stewart said.

Still, the attitudes of the workers and the safety culture of each worksite also contribute to the problem, Schlekeway said. In a practice known as free climbing, workers choose to not tie off to the structure for all or part of their climb. Clint Honeycutt Sr., president of Baton Rouge, LA-based Safety Connection Inc., speculates that workers may believe they will not be hurt if they fall at low heights. However, these workers must consider what they may fall into – be it an electrical wire or the structure itself, he warned.

Ultimately, it is important for each company to establish an internal safety culture that demands workers always tie off, Schekeway said. It also requires the buy-in of each worker.

It has to be a commitment that you make “every single second when you are working at heights,” he said.

Qualified workers and trainers

With such a high demand for upgraded wireless networks, many workers are transitioning to the communication tower industry from other fields, Schlekeway said. Because of the unique safety hazards of cell towers, it is imperative that employees who are new to climbing are adequately trained and not placed on a worksite until they are ready, he said.

Honeycutt said employers are responsible for training all new workers and should re-train annually, or more frequently for teams that encounter high-risk projects.

According to NIOSH, the following will help ensure workers are prepared to climb a communication tower:

  • Use of fall protection systems that are compatible with the tower being climbed and the tasks being performed
  • Training on correctly using OSHA-required personal protective equipment
  • Knowing how to climb safely, including maintaining three-point contact (two hands and one foot or two feet and one hand) with the tower
  • Daily inspection of equipment to ensure it is damage-free
  • Knowing how to use hoisting equipment that is properly rated and work-position devices that are compatible with the tower’s components

The employee providing the training must be competent and experienced in climbing, Honeycutt said. However, he added, some contractors will simply send a crew member to a train-the-trainer class on fall protection and designate that person a competent trainer.

Experience matters, Honeycutt said, noting that it can take years to fully master communication tower climbing before teaching it to others.

Industry pressure

Stewart also points to today’s “leaner and meaner” economy as a factor in the increase in communication tower deaths. Wireless carriers and contractors look to hire subcontractors who will complete jobs as quickly as possible and for less pay. These subcontractors may cut their safety budgets to remain competitive and, as a result, do not replace or repair safety gear for workers or spend money on quality fall protection training.

“These tragedies should not be written off as the cost of doing business,” Michaels said in the video. He detailed steps OSHA is taking to increase compliance in the industry. On Feb. 10, OSHA sent a letter to communication tower employers warning them of financial penalties if they do not take adequate steps to ensure the safety and health of their employees.

Stewart believes the industry is in a position to reduce fatalities more quickly than OSHA’s current regulatory agenda would allow. He is in favor of a national consensus standard, developed and voluntarily adopted by the industry. Such a standard would mandate that employers have comprehensive and appropriate fall protection plans in place prior to climbing, and require workers to be tied off 100 percent of the time above a set number of feet with fall protection that is compatible with the tower and the tasks assigned.

“The industry is in the best position to start solving this,” Stewart said.

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