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Communication tower safety

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

May 23, 2014

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.

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.