Seeking Solutions on Tower Workers' Safety

"We understand the importance of this industry, but workers' lives should not be sacrificed for a better cell phone signal," said Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary for occupational safety and health.

There’s still time to respond to OSHA's request for information about protecting workers who build and maintain communication towers. Its April 2015 request said a search of OSHA's Integrated Management Information System database found 107 incidents from 2003 through 2013 that resulted in 91 fatalities and 17 injuries, with 79 of the deaths due to falls. Structural collapses killed an additional eight people, three fatalities involved electrocutions, and the last fatality involved an employee struck by a load while working on a tower. In addition, 2013 was the deadliest year for communication tower workers since 2006: According to 2013 OSHA incident investigation reports, there were 15 incidents that year, resulting in 13 deaths and three injuries that required hospitalization.

The increasing demand for wireless and broadcast communications during the past 30 years "has spurred dramatic growth in communication tower construction and maintenance," the document states, adding that employees regularly climb anywhere from 100 to 2,000 feet and face the risk of falls, structural collapses, electrical hazards, and hazards associated with inclement weather. In addition, work on communication towers often involves complex business relationships among multiple companies—it is not uncommon to have as many as six or seven layers of subcontractors between the carrier and the company that employs the workers who perform the work, and this business structure "poses challenges to setting and enforcing safety rules and ensuring the well-being of employees," according to the request document.

"We understand the importance of this industry, but workers' lives should not be sacrificed for a better cell phone signal. OSHA is inviting the public to tell us what we can do to better protect these workers," said Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary for occupational safety and health. OSHA seeks input from all parties in the contracting chain, including tower workers, wireless carriers, engineering and construction management firms, tower owners, and tower construction and maintenance companies. To submit a comment, visit http://www.regulations.gov and search for Docket No. OSHA-2014-0018.

Dr. Michaels will take questions from the audience after his June 9 plenary session talk at ASSE's Safety 2015 in Dallas, and tower workers' safety is the focus of at least one education session (510a, 10:30-11:45 a.m. June 8).

This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Jerry Laws is Editor of Occupational Health & Safety magazine, which is owned by 1105 Media Inc.

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