OSHA Focuses on Cell Tower Safety

By Roy Maurer Feb 17, 2014

In the first five weeks of 2014, four workers have died while climbing cell towers, prompting the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to send a letter of concern to communication tower employers.

A maintenance worker fell to his death Jan. 31, 2014, from a cell tower in Cameron County, Texas. Two workers and a firefighter were killed after two towers collapsed on Feb. 1, 2014, near Clarksburg, W. Va.

Thirteen fatalities occurred in 2013, more than in the previous two years combined, OSHA said. Most of those killed fell from the towers, however, workers also have been injured or killed by falling objects, structural collapses and equipment failures.

Cell tower worker deaths tend to accelerate during cellular network expansions as carriers race to upgrade their networks with faster wireless speeds.

The agency said it is concerned about the possibility of future incidents, especially when subcontractors are doing the hazardous work, and warned that companies could face penalties if they don’t do enough to prevent deaths.

“It is imperative that the cell tower industry take steps immediately to address this pressing issue,” the agency said in the letter, sent Feb. 11, 2014, to about 100 employers.

OSHA also created a new Web page targeting the issues surrounding communication tower work.

“Tower worker deaths cannot be the price we pay for increased wireless communication,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health David Michaels. “Employers and cell tower owners and operators must do everything possible to stop these senseless, preventable tragedies.”

Stress Fall Protection

OSHA found that a high proportion of fatalities occurred because of a lack of fall protection: either employers had not provided appropriate fall protection to employees, or did not ensure that the fall protection was used properly. “It’s pretty straightforward to keep workers harnessed and prevent them from falling from towers,” Michaels said.

As required under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, when working on communication towers, employees must be provided with appropriate fall protection, trained to use this fall protection properly, and be consistently supervised by the employer. “Fall hazards are obvious and well known, and OSHA will consider issuing willful citations, in appropriate cases, for a failure to provide and use fall protection,” Michaels said.

For example, OSHA issued citations in December 2013 to Custom Tower LLC of Scott, La., for one willful violation following the death of a worker who fell approximately 125 feet.

Contractor Chain Oversight

During inspections, OSHA will be paying particular attention to contract oversight issues, and will obtain contracts in order to identify not only the company performing work on the tower, but the tower owner, carrier, and other responsible parties in the contracting chain, the agency said.

OSHA officials sent its compliance officers and regional administrators a memo in November 2013 mandating special attention be paid to the chain of contractors connected to a site, as well as the wireless carriers that ordered the work. Investigators “should make sure to collect information regarding contract oversight issues, and obtain copies of any relevant contract documents,” the memo said.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy

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