OSHA Takes First Step Toward Cell Tower Safety Rule

By Roy Maurer April 17, 2015

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a request for information about worker safety hazards, safe work practices, and potential regulatory approaches to prevent worker injuries and fatalities in communication tower construction and maintenance.

OSHA is requesting information from tower workers, wireless carriers, engineering and construction management firms, tower owners, and tower construction and maintenance companies about the causes of employee injuries and fatalities occurring while working on communication towers.

The agency is also seeking comments on industry best practices, training and certification practices, and input on how to best protect communication tower workers. This information could help OSHA develop new safety standards for communication tower workers in a future rulemaking.

OSHA is asking tower workers about hazards experienced on the job, safe work practices provided, and who is responsible for supervision, training and reporting safety issues.

The agency is also inquiring into training and certification programs, fitness requirements, how employers are addressing various hazards, safety responsibilities in the contract chain, the size and number of firms, wages and turnover rates, worker experience level, and equipment used.

OSHA is asking for both regulatory and nonregulatory approaches to improving worker safety, and specifically what effects standards in North Carolina and Michigan have had on work practices and climber safety in those states. North Carolina and Michigan are the only two states with relevant standards. North Carolina’s standard became effective in 2005 and covers the construction, alteration, repair, operation, inspection and maintenance of communication towers. The Michigan standard was issued in 2009, and contains provisions on fall protection, emergency response protocols, training, certification, hazard identification, hoists, hoisting personnel and equipment. Washington state is planning to update its telecommunications standard.

The deadline for submitting comments for OSHA’s request for information is June 14, 2015.

Increased Demand Leads to More Incidents

In the past 30 years, the increased demand for wireless and broadcast communications has spurred dramatic growth in communication tower construction and maintenance, OSHA said. In order to erect or maintain communication towers, employees regularly climb anywhere from 100 feet to 2,000 feet and face various hazards such as the risk of falls from great heights, structural collapses, electrical hazards, and hazards associated with inclement weather.

OSHA recorded 91 fatalities and 17 injuries from incidents involving communication towers from 2003 through 2013. Most of the fatalities (79) were due to falls. Structural collapses killed an additional eight people, three fatalities involved electrocutions, and the last fatality was due to an employee being struck by a load while working on a tower. Falls were also the leading cause of injuries among communication tower workers, with 13 of 17 injuries resulting from falls.

2013 was the deadliest year for communication tower workers since 2006. According to OSHA, there were a total of 15 incidents, resulting in 13 fatalities. Of the 15 incidents, 11 involved falls; of those falls, nine were fatal. Structural collapses accounted for two fatalities, and two fatalities were the result of employees being struck by suspended materials while working on a tower.

Twelve workers were killed in 2014, twice the number of deaths in 2011 and six times the total number in 2012.

“We understand the importance of this industry, but workers’ lives should not be sacrificed for a better cellphone signal,” said David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health.

Applicable Standards

Current OSHA standards do not provide comprehensive coverage of communication tower construction work, the agency said. OSHA’s standards for fall protection in construction generally require the use of fall protection at heights of six feet and greater, although those standards do not cover the erection of new communication towers. Fall protection requirements for the construction of new communication towers require the use of safety nets when workplaces “are more than 25 feet above the ground or water surface, or other surfaces where the use of ladders, scaffolds, catch platforms, temporary floors, safety lines, or safety belts is impractical.” Communication tower construction work is exempt from OSHA’s steel erection requirements.

There are a number of OSHA general industry standards that apply to communication tower maintenance work. A key provision in the telecommunications standard addresses training.

OSHA has also used the general duty clause in some cases involving accidents on communication towers. For example, in March 2014, OSHA issued a general duty clause citation in a case involving a double fatality caused by improper rigging on a communication tower. OSHA found that the employer was aware of, but failed to follow, industry standards and practices for safe rigging.

There are also several industry consensus standards that address hazards in the erection, construction and maintenance of communication towers. Telecommunications Industry Association standards address structural design, the loading of communication towers under construction and the use of specialized equipment. The American National Standards Institute is currently developing a standard which will address safety practices for the construction and maintenance of communication towers. This standard may be approved within the next two years.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy

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