Last month, a maintenance worker fell to his death from a communications tower in Cameron County, Texas. The next day, two cell towers collapsed at a job site in Clarksburg, W.Va, killing two tower workers and a firefighter who responded to the collapse.
Unfortunately, these deaths are not isolated incidents, but part of a disturbing trend. In 2013, more communication tower workers were killed than in the previous two years combined. Already in the first weeks of 2014, three more tower workers have died.
The fatality rate in this industry is extraordinarily high — tower workers are perhaps 25 times more likely to die on the job than the average American worker. The deaths of these workers cannot be the price we pay for increased wireless communication.
We at OSHA are very concerned about this rising number of tower worker deaths, and we are doing everything we can to improve safety in this industry. We have issued a letter to communication tower employers, urging strict adherence to safety standards and common sense practices. The National Association of Tower Erectors is teaming up with us to ensure that employers understand their responsibility to protect workers performing this high-hazard work. In addition, we continue to provide free consultations for small and medium-sized business owners who would like assistance.
We are also looking at the structure of this industry and the multiple levels of subcontracting, from the giant telecoms to the small companies who employ the workers maintaining the towers. We are calling on everyone in the industry – from the major cell carriers to the owners of the towers, from the tower maintenance companies down to the small firms who employ the climbers – to take responsibility for worker safety. We will be collecting and analyzing contracts and asking the hard questions right up to the top.
There are simple, common-sense ways to prevent more of these senseless tragedies. Most of the fatalities in this industry are due to falls, and we’ve found that many of the workers who are killed were wearing harnesses but were not tied off. Fall protection saves lives. Employers are responsible for training workers and ensuring that their tower crews are consistently protected. By reinforcing their own safety policies, training and re-training workers, and making sure subcontractors follow all safety rules, employers can create a culture of safety.
In too many of our investigations, we find that a tower collapse occurred as workers were replacing structural components or strengthening the tower to accommodate increased capacity. In others, workers are not given clear directions about how to do the work and maintain structural integrity. Before starting a job involving replacing a structural component, employers must develop and implement a plan to prevent collapse and ensure workers are safe.
Together we can turn this tide and make sure these tragedies aren’t written off as the cost of doing business. To learn more about hazards and safety measures for the communications industry, visit our new Web page.
Dr. David Michaels is the assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health.