Does More Work Mean More Risk for Communication Tower Workers?
Here's what employers should know to safeguard employees.
- By Craig Firl
- Jan 01, 2015
A growing demand for faster cell phone service and network speeds has resulted in a surge in communications tower work. However, with the increased work comes increased risk for workers on communication towers. Case in point: More on-the-job fatalities involving communications towers occurred in 2013 than during the previous two years combined.
Thirteen deaths were recorded in 2013, and a reported 11 workers have died so far this year at the time of writing this article. All of the fatalities in 2013 were determined to have been preventable and were either a result of employers failing to provide fall protection or employees failing to use the equipment provided, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The risk of fatal injury for communication tower workers is 25 to 30 percent higher than that of the average American worker, according to OSHA's Assistant Secretary of Labor Dr. David Michaels. Using fixed ladders, step bolts, or other tower supports, employees regularly climb towers that are 100 to 2,000 feet high; and they climb them year round—even during inclement weather conditions.
OSHA published updated guidelines and procedures in July 2014 that address mounting concerns about communication tower workers' safety. With these new OSHA guidelines in effect, now is the time to re-evaluate your own guidelines and procedures for workers at height to ensure that they are entering a safe work environment and are well equipped, both mentally and physically, in the event of a fall.
OSHA Expresses Concern over Recent Fatalities
With an increase in communication tower work during the past year due to cellular infrastructure upgrades, OSHA is concerned about the possibility of future incidents—especially when the employees of subcontractors conduct work that is itself hazardous—and has created a new online page to address these issues.
OSHA's David Michaels also wrote a letter to communication tower employers recently, urging them to comply with and strictly adhere to safety standards and common-sense practices. "In 2013, 13 workers in the industry were killed at communication tower work sites. . . . Every single one of these tragedies was preventable," he wrote. "It is imperative that the cell tower industry take steps immediately to address this pressing issue: no worker should risk death for a paycheck."
OSHA reports that a high percentage of these incidents occurred because of a lack of fall protection.
OSHA's New Communications Tower Directive
In OSHA's new Communications Tower directive, it outlines how to use hoist systems and other fall arrest systems properly. The directive applies to all work activities on communication towers that involve the use of a personnel hoist, including tower maintenance work and new construction, and includes detailed information on how to lift and move workers to and from workstations and communication towers. The new Communications Tower directive replaces a 2002 enforcement policy that addressed hoisting personnel only during new tower erection, but not during maintenance or work on existing towers.
The new enforcement guidelines, titled "Inspection Procedures for Accessing Communication Towers by Hoist," were effective on July 17. This OSHA-wide directive calls on all compliance personnel to be vigilant when encountering communication tower work sites and to contact the Area Office Supervisor to determine whether to conduct an inspection.
Employers are Responsible for Worker Safety
It is every employer's responsibility to prevent workers from being injured or killed while working on communication towers and to recognize and prevent workplace hazards. All cell tower owners and operators should ensure workers are properly trained and protected and that every communication tower employer understands how to protect workers who are performing this high-hazard work.
The new directive outlines key compliance training guidelines for employers to safeguard employee safety and health on communication towers that involve the use of a personnel hoist, including:
- Train new hires: Every new hire should be adequately trained prior to his or her initial assignment and then carefully monitored to ensure safe work practices are learned and followed. Workers being hoisted must have received fall protection training and know how to safely move up and down the tower.
- Train hoist operators: Hoist operators must be trained on the entire hoist system, which includes classroom instruction and a minimum of 40 hours of experience as a hoist operator.
- Provide fall protection: Every employee working on a communication tower must be provided with appropriate fall protection, trained to use it properly, and then consistently supervised by the employer, which must also enforce its appropriate use.
- Prepare for inspections: All employers should be prepared for an OSHA inspection. OSHA pays particular attention to contract oversight issues during inspections and will obtain contracts in order to identify not only the company performing work on the tower, but also the tower owner, carrier, and other responsible parties in the contracting chain.
- Carefully select contractors: Employers always should select contractors carefully to ensure they can perform the work safely, as checked boxes and basic contract language may not provide enough information. The selection process always should include safety criteria and close oversight of subcontracting, if any is allowed.
- Be aware of potential citations: Fall hazards are obvious and well known, and OSHA will consider issuing willful citations, in appropriate cases, for failure to provide and use fall protection. States with their own occupational safety and health plans may have additional requirements. A full list of State Plans is available at http://www.osha.gov/dcsp/osp/index.html.
Potential Citations Under the New Guidelines
According to OSHA, the preferred method for accessing workstations on communication towers is to use fixed ladders with attached climbing devices. This method allows for conventional fall protection during the ascent and descent of the structure. However, when an employee must climb a tower repeatedly and materials must be hoisted, the industry practice is to hoist employees to the work level on the tower.
The new directive , CPL 02-01-056, states that, for hoisting personnel, a personnel platform must be used as prescribed by the platform manufacturer and in compliance with 29 CFR 1926.1431(e), or a boatswain chair or harness. When hoisting personnel and materials on a communication tower while using a personnel platform, small incidental materials and personal tools may be hoisted concurrently. However, when a boatswain chair or harness is used, personnel and materials should be hoisted separately. Additionally, in this situation, an OSHA-compliant lanyard shall be used to connect the person to the hoist hook. To prevent loss of contact, the hoist hook should have the capability to be locked in a closed position and be equipped with a safety latch. The new instruction also provides additional guidance on communication between the hoist operator and hoisted employees, weather conditions, hoist mounting, trial hoists, and inspections.
For construction work on existing towers, employers who fail to provide fall protection (guardrails, safety nets, or personal fall arrest systems) for employees at workstations with unprotected sides or edges that are 6 feet or higher above a lower level will be cited under 29 CFR 1926.501(b)(1). Fall protection training requirements also apply.
In addition, for new tower erections, employers who fail to provide fall protection for employees at workstations that are more than 25 feet above the ground should be cited under 29 CFR 1926.105(a).
Safeguarding Your Team Against At-Height Accidents
Regardless of whether an employee is working 20 feet above the ground or 2,000 feet, at-height work can be hazardous and potentially fatal. No matter how big or small—or in what industry—no company is immune from the mental, emotional, and financial repercussions of a worker killed or severely injured from a fall on the job. In addition, if a fall occurs, the companies involved can face fines for OSHA violations that range from hundreds to thousands of dollars.
As the amount of communications tower work grows, the potential for injury and falls also grows. However, providing the right equipment for the job, training workers to use equipment correctly, and selecting contractors wisely can save lives. It is up to both employees and their employers to learn how these changes will impact their work and work sites and to ensure they receive the training they need today.
Did You Know?
The Telecommunications Industry Registered Apprenticeship Program (TIRAP) is expanding training for cell tower workers. In October 2014, TIRAP joined with an assembly of telecommunications and industry stakeholders to announce a public-private partnership geared toward creating a new set of apprenticeships addressing the demand for new, more sophisticated telecommunications services.
Fueled by the increasing popularity of smartphones and other wireless technology utilizing 4G networks, cell tower jobs are not only becoming more prevalent, but also the jobs are constantly evolving. TIRAP shared that the first apprenticeship will be for a telecommunications tower technician. The program will develop individuals' knowledge of deploying cutting-edge networks through education on the technology, project scope, and safety.
TIRAP started in 2012 as a competency-based apprenticeship program for entry-level occupations within the cell tower industry to ensure compliance with OSHA-level safety standards. The program symbolizes the joint commitments of the telecommunications industry, the U.S. Department of Labor (Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Office of Apprenticeship) and the Federal Communications Commission to provide safety and training to workers within the industry.
The new extension of apprenticeships creates a career advancement and professional development opportunity for telecommunications workers, while simultaneously supporting one of the fastest-growing industries in the world with highly-trained, safety-oriented professionals. For more information about TIRAP, visit http://www.doleta.gov/oa/pdf/TIRAP.pdf.
This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.