Urgent Matters

Extreme cold reminds of need to protect tower and site workers


Under the best of conditions, climbing a radio tower is a dangerous job. In the extreme cold, the best idea normally is to avoid site maintenance, according to an official with the National Association of Tower Erectors.

In order to go to college, I had to be resourceful. From the time I was a sophomore in high school to when I received my sheepskin, I worked in a factory and as a commercial painter, umpired baseball games and cleaned people’s floors. But the job I loved the most—and hated the most—was working in a gas station, which I did off and on for about seven years. This was before the advent of self service, and my job was to fill people’s tanks, check their oil and clean their windshields. It was a great job in the summer, but a brutal one in the winter. Twice I suffered frostbite, which still affects my hands today.

The Polar Vortex that gripped much of the country a few days ago—when temperatures in Chicago, where I live, plummeted to minus-17 and the wind chill was a painful minus-45—caused me to reminisce about those long ago days. So did a note from the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE), which reminded members to take heed of OSHA’s Cold Stress Guide.

The guide defines the three common manifestations of cold stress—hypothermia, frostbite and trench foot—and offers tips for treating and, more importantly, preventing them. It also offers suggestions concerning what employers and workers can do to prevent cold stress from occurring.

I spoke with Todd Schlekeway, NATE’s executive director, about this earlier today. He said that tower owners/operators and contractors should err on the side of caution when dealing with the multitude of risks associated with cold weather—ice, snow, wind and the aforementioned physical afflictions—because tower climbing already is dangerous in the best of conditions.

“You have to use common sense,” he said. “There’s no job worth exposing workers to extreme elements. It’s a sophisticated enough job the way it is—it’s a job that presents enough challenges. Climbing a tower is taxing physically the way it is, [so you don’t want to add] the elements on top of that.”

Schlekeway told of one NATE member in the Philadelphia area that won’t let its workers climb when the temperature is below 20 degrees.

“And if it’s snowy or icy, you have to keep them off the tower in those situations, too,” Schlekeway said. “[Cold weather] presents challenges, so the smartest decision, if there’s any possibility that it would create difficulty for tower technicians, it’s better to keep them off the site.”

Schlekeway reminded that the Occupational Safety and Health Act places the onus on employers to create a workplace that is free of recognized hazards that could cause death or serious injury. Extremely cold weather—and all that it brings—is one of those recognized hazards, he said.

“We’re urging vigilance,” Schlekeway said.

So am I. More than three decades later, I can remember with crystal clarity just how brutal some of those winter shifts at the gas station were—but at least I was able to get into the station house at various junctures to warm up, even for just a bit. I also wasn’t laboring a couple of hundred feet above the ground. What I experienced pales in comparison to what tower technicians have to deal with. I tip my hat to them and hope that their employers do everything they can to keep them safe during this extremely challenging time of year. 

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Insights from Donny Jackson concerning the most important news, trends and issues.


Donny Jackson

Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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