DOL, Telecom Industry Develop Safety Training Program for Tower Workers

By Roy Maurer Oct 27, 2014
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The Department of Labor (DOL) is teaming up with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the telecommunications industry to create a registered apprenticeship program to provide safety training for communications tower workers.

The announcement was made at a recent workshop on tower climber safety and injury prevention in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the DOL and the FCC.

Labor Secretary Thomas Perez called the partnership a “perfect example of federal agencies and industry breaking down barriers and identifying common goals to save workers’ lives.”

He told workshop attendees that the small but fast-growing cell tower industry is proving to be one of the most dangerous. “The cellphones in our pockets can’t come at the cost of a worker’s life,” he said. “If we don’t do something now, the number of fatalities is going to grow as fast as the industry does.”

Climbers work throughout the year, including during inclement weather, and can be subjected to:

  • Falls.
  • Electrocution.
  • Hazards associated with hoisting personnel and equipment.
  • Falling objects.
  • Equipment failure.
  • Structural collapse.

The industry’s fatality rate was 123.6 deaths for every 100,000 workers from 2003 through 2011, more than 10 times the rate for construction workers, according to investigative organization ProPublica.

Thirteen tower workers lost their lives in 2013, and 11 have died so far this year. One of those was Kathy Pierce’s son Chad Weller, who died March 19, 2014, falling from a tower in Pasadena, Md. The 21-year-old was directed to climb the tower in inclement weather wearing a harness two sizes too big for him.

“We need to make some serious changes in this industry to stop the senseless loss of life,” Pierce said through tears, addressing industry providers and regulators at the workshop.

Apprenticeship Training

Perez and representatives from the FCC, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the telecom industry signed documents approving the Telecommunications Industry Registered Apprenticeship Program (TIRAP), a voluntary training course for entry-level occupations in the cell tower industry. The course encompasses a series of competencies to ensure quality and safety, including modules on personal protective equipment, CPR/first aid, radio frequency exposure awareness, jobsite safety analysis, basic rigging, material handling, ropes and knots, operation of hand and power saws, operation of trucks, trailers and equipment, and an introduction to tower structures.

The program is customizable for various companies within the cell tower industry.

“This apprenticeship program will make sure that tower technicians receive the safety training necessary to reduce injury on the job,” said Perez. “As the telecom industry booms, it needs workers with the expertise to do the job safely.”

OSHA Priority

Perez credited OSHA head David Michaels for making tower worker safety a priority. In July 2014, OSHA released a directive explaining how and when communications tower maintenance and construction companies should use cable-hoisting systems to lift workers up and down towers.

One of the major issues impacting tower worker safety is the “multiple levels of contractors and subcontractors, from giant firms that broadcast signals to the often very small companies whose workers build, maintain and repair the towers,” Michaels said. “We believe many of the fatal incidents are related to contracting to small employers that may overlook safety requirements because they’re under pressure to complete projects quickly and inexpensively.”

In the past, Michaels has advocated for large telecom companies to include safety requirements in contracts signed with companies hired to build or repair mobile phone networks and to ensure those safety mandates are followed by subcontractors.

OSHA is primarily focused on education and outreach in this area because of the difficulty of scheduling inspections for work that is quickly accomplished and very mobile, Michaels said.

He also hinted at possible future rulemaking, which could emanate from a request for information currently under development.

Additionally, a new proposed consensus standard being drafted by the American National Standards Institute will address tower worker safety.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy

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