Training, Standards Advocated for 'Nearly Unregulated' Tower Industry

AIHce 2015 presenter outlines hazards faced by tower climbers and reports 80 percent of 2002-2014 fatalities in the industry were during equipment installation, maintenance, and repair—not tower construction.

SALT LAKE CITY – Communication tower workers' safety is much on the minds of OSHA's leadership these days, with an agency Request for Information still active until June 15 (www.regulations.gov, Docket No. OSHA-2014-0018). The topic was discussed in depth during a June 3 presentation at AIHce 2015 by Thomas P. Fuller, ScD, CIH, associate professor in Illinois State University's Safety Program. Fuller said he has interviewed supervisors and workers who climb communication towers, has taken a training course for tower climbers, and, with assistance from Patrick Schmidt, a sophomore in the program, has analyzed tower worker fatality reports from 2002 to 2014.

It is a tight-knit profession where many climbers evidence a "cowboy" mentality, Fuller said, adding that tower maintenance work is "nearly unregulated in numerous aspects," with a low bar for workers to enter it and earn high pay. OSHA's inspections have focused on tower construction rather than maintenance, he said, maintaining that this approach is wrong because 80 percent of the climbers killed during 2002-2014 were engaged in equipment installation, maintenance, or repair work when they died—not in tower construction. And 66 percent of the fatalities were caused by not using or wearing fall protection equipment properly, Fuller added, calling it one of the most hazardous U.S. industries. Other causes included equipment failure (12 percent), structural failure (9 percent), and electrocution (4 percent). There were 15 different SIC codes identified in those years' fatality reports, he said.

He noted that the FAA and the FTC issue permits for tower construction and FCC has conducted 30 inspections during the past 12 years, each of them responding to a complaint about excessive RF radiation exposure. FCC found a violation in every inspection and issued a total of $566,200 in fines.

There are about 205,000 communication towers in the United States, with the oldest towers dating to around 1985, he said, adding there is strong demand to build more towers and to renovate existing ones.

Saying "there's no guidance, there's no OSHA, no ANSI [standard]," Fuller recommended that mandatory standards be enacted that cover safety during tower maintenance work, along with apprenticeship programs, more training, and more OSHA inspections. Several OSHA employees were in the audience, and two of them asked questions; a former OSHA compliance officer now working for the U.S. Department of Energy said she found that tower maintenance companies are very difficult to inspect because the work is often on private property, maintenance projects don't take long, and the maintenance companies and landowners aren't required to notify any agency when the work is done.

Another person in the audience who said his company employs tower maintenance contractors said there is a prototype being developed of a device Fuller had recommended in his presentation: a device that sends an alert to the supervisor when a tower climber is working aloft but is not tied off.

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