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OSHA, FCC workshop focuses on keeping communications tower workers safe

Safety advocates say ‘serious changes’ are needed

Communications towers
Photo: Henryk Sadura/iStock/Thinkstock

The telecommunications industry must ensure the clear communication of worker safety, just as it strives to provide clear wireless communication to the public.

This was the message delivered by OSHA administrator David Michaels during an Oct. 14 workshop hosted by the Department of Labor and the Federal Communications Commission. Featuring several key industry stakeholders, the workshop discussed how to prevent deaths and injuries in the telecommunications field.

At press time, 11 workers had died during the construction or repair of cell towers in 2014, and 13 died in 2013, according to OSHA. The rate at which telecommunication workers die on the job is 10 times higher than that of construction workers, Michaels said.

“The deaths of these workers cannot be the price we pay for increased wireless communication,” he said.

One of the deaths in 2014 involved Chad Weller. His mother, Kathy Pierce, fought back tears at the workshop as she told Weller’s story and his dream of joining the Navy. While working as a communication tower technician – a job he loved – Weller was sent up an icy water tower in rainy conditions to work on telecommunications equipment nearly 200 feet off the ground. He was wearing a harness given to him by a foreman, but it was two sizes too big. Weller fell to his death.

“We need to make some serious changes in this industry to stop the senseless loss of life,” Pierce said.

Addressing the problem

The workshop included two panels: one examining the high fatality and injury rates; the other identifying best practices.

Panelists cited several reasons for the high death rate, including poor training, personal protective equipment that was outdated or in poor condition, and pressure from deadlines.

More than three-quarters of telecommunications worker fatalities over the years were related to free climbing (i.e., climbing unconnected to a structure), according to Wallace Reardon, founder of the Workers at Heights Health and Safety Initiative. Many workers enjoy free climbing, he said, and it is the most popular way contractors can pick up the pace of the work.

Dave Anthony, president of Staunton, VA-based Shenandoah Tower Service, bluntly asserted that the industry has a systemic problem that fosters unsafe performance, and the pursuit of profits outpaces safety.

“At every level, the base decision is made by how little we can pay to get the job done,” he said. “We’re an undisciplined, unruly industry.”

Several panelists made suggestions for improving the safety of telecommunications tower workers. Some said all involved – from cellular carriers and tower owners to contractors and subcontractors – must buy in and focus on the safety effort. Other panelists said climbers should have the right to say no to dangerous work without fear of being fired.

Training was widely supported. But Jonathan Campbell stressed the need to focus on quality, consistency and certification of training for it to be successful. “The status quo isn’t working,” said Campbell, director of government affairs for PCIA – The Wireless Infrastructure Association.

Some organizations, including the National Association of Tower Erectors, are working toward standardized training. One step toward improved and consistent training is the Telecommunications Industry Registered Apprenticeship Program, a public-private initiative intended to provide high-quality training for tower technicians.

Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez and FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler closed out the workshop with a signing ceremony commemorating the launch of the apprenticeship program.

“We need to make sure the safety principles are fully integrated into training programs,” Perez said. “Our goal is to make sure that every single person in this industry, when you get up in the morning, you’re coming home at night.”

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