OSHA and the 1996 Communication Act
Radio frequency radiation rules are now in effect. Compliance with worker safety guidelines can avoid regulatory and financial headaches.
Denton is an environmental scientist and Stewart is director of marketing for RSI (Radiofrequency Safety International), Kiowa, KS. They can be reached at 888-830-5648 or by email at email@example.com
The Telecommunications Act of 1996, Section 704, concerning radio frequency (RF) radiation, went into effect Oct. 15, 1997. The FCC is the primary enforcer of this law, which implements regulations to protect the public and workers from potentially harmful RF radiation. All sites must come into compliance with the new standards for the maximum permissible exposure (MPE) of RF radiation.
Many site owners, radio shops, end users, public service organizations and the general public do not realize all the implications of this law. They also may not realize that it has created an additional enforcement avenue for government agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Historically, OSHA’s mission has been to ensure a safe working environment for all U.S. workers. OSHA monitors and inspects safety programs, such as those concerning physical hazards and chemical hazards (e.g., asbestos, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide), as well as lockout/tag-out and hearing protection procedures. OSHA considers a “hazard” to be a condition that has the potential to cause harm or injury to an individual. RF exposure has been a part of the Occupational Safety and Health Standards (29 CFR Part 1910 and 1926) since as early as 1991.
OSHA typically performs three types of audits: 1) a random audit, 2) an audit stemming from a complaint from a worker or the public, or 3) an audit triggered by the death of a worker, or a serious and/or life-threatening injury. When OSHA performs an audit, it verifies that written safety programs are in place and followed and that the employees understand them.
What most people do not realize is that non-compliance with the above programs is always more costly than the implementation of the programs. For the absence of a written safety program, fines in excess of $10,000 have been levied. For example, the lack of a federal 5-in-1 labor law poster (including job safety and health protection definitions), posted in an area accessible to employees, could result in a $7,000 fine. If a single combustible material is stored improperly, the fine could be $1,000. Each additional combustible would increase the fine in increments of $1,000. For any employee exposed to a potential fall of 10 feet or more, there must be fall protection. One court awarded more than $13 million to the family of a victim of a fall that was linked to violations of fall-protection regulations. In addition to the civil settlement, the company at fault was fined $450,000, and the supervisor was sentenced to six years in prison. This happened because the fatality occured in a confined space, and there was no written confined-space program for the site.
OSHA has also fined companies for unsafe practices concerning RF radiation. Last year a major manufacturing company was issued a cease-and-desist order stemming from an interference complaint. Further FCC investigations revealed that the site was above MPE guidelines for RF. This action caused a loss of production and revenue in the company’s peak production period before Christmas.
Once a complaint has been filed with OSHA, other government agencies can become involved. The FCC, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Aviation Administration, as well as OSHA, can all issue citations on the same complaint. Once a fine has been issued, a company’s public image may suffer irreparable damage. Negative publicity is a powerful force, and it can take decades for damage to be effectively undone. We all recall the oil tanker disaster that occurred in Alaska’s Prince William Sound several years ago. The spill and eventual cleanup has cost the oil company millions of dollars, not to mention the millionsof dollars in fines imposed by various government agencies. Everyone knows exactly which company we mean because of the negative publicity that followed the disaster.
Those of us in the communications industry know what the potential is for lost income when transmitters go out of service. Fire, power outages and ice storms, as well as other “acts of God,” that damage towers and equipment rooms can all be catalysts for huge income losses when transmitters and antennas are out of service. But have you ever considered the potential for lost income if you were to be cited with a cease-and-desist order because your MPE for RF radiation exceeds the standard? The only sure way to protect yourself or your company from fines and possible litigation is the implementation of an OSHA-approved written safety plan.
Companies should also be aware of the OSHA “right to know” and “personal protection equipment” laws. Programs addressing these regulations should be incorporated as another basic section of your written safety plan. The OSHA “right to know” law requires that workers be fully aware of the hazards of their workplace, with the responsibility to inform resting with the employer. The “right to know” law stipulates that there are two different RF radiation exposure environments.
Controlled/occupational environments are locations where exposure may be received by persons who are made “fully aware” of the potential and can exercise control over their exposure. This does not mean, though, that the employer has the right to expose the employee to high levels of radiation even if they are “fully aware.” In a letter to the FCC, OSHA stated, “The possible implication that employees may be subject to a higher level of risk because they are aware of the potential for exposure as part of their employment is unacceptable to OSHA. … The uncontrolled environment criteria is an action limit which determines when an RF protection program is required.”
General population/uncontrolled environments are where the public may be exposed or where persons who are exposed as a part of their employment may not have been made “fully aware” of the potential for exposure and cannot exercise control over their exposure. (An example might be an HVAC technician servicing a chiller near a rooftop antenna site.)
OSHA’s “personal protection equipment” law requires that employees must be protected from hazards and have the right type of equipment available for use for each work area. This equipment includes hardhats, ear protection, eye protection, fall protection and now equipment to monitor RF radiation. All employees must be trained in the use of the equipment, and this must be documented in the written safety program. After that, training must be updated annually. It is the primary responsibility of the employer to enforce the use of the equipment. An employer that disregards responsibility increases its chances of regulatory or civil penalties.
OSHA also stipulates that all workplace hazards, including RF radiation, must be assessed. To determine the need for an OSHA-approved written safety program, you must first determine what all the hazards in the workplace are. The basic requirements for instituting an OSHA-approved written safety program for RF are that your site be beyond the MPE limits outlined by the IEEE/ANSI standards and by the FCC, and that your employees be exposed to RF levels beyond the standards.
The first step in determining if your site is in compliance with the new standards is the evaluation of the MPE, which is usually performed by a complex computer program that accounts for all the different variables associated with an antenna site. Variables include the frequency and maximum power of the RF source, the duty factor if applicable, the antenna gain and radiation patterns, and the type of modulation. If you are an engineer or an expert in the subtle influences of all the variables and how they interact, you may be able to determine the MPE for your site yourself. However, most people use a third party to protect themselves fromliability.
At a recent Personal Communications Industry Association RF conference, it was stated that, “Even if antennas are ‘categorically excluded’ from ‘routine environmental evaluation,’ RF fields in their vicinity can still exceed the MPE limits for worker exposure. ‘Categorically excluded’ does not relieve the licensee from an obligation to comply with the MPE. In fact, unless the licensee takes appropriate measures to mitigate potentially excessive worker exposure at some ‘categorically excluded’ antennas, the facility will technically not be in compliance with the FCC human exposure rules.” This means that MPE evaluations are required for all fixed transmitters.
This MPE evaluation also applies to all multiple site transmitters. If you are collocated with another transmitter at a site that is radiating beyond the applicable standards, and that transmitter renews its license, or if you contribute 5% or more of the limit (as set forth by the guidelines), then you must also come into compliance with the new guidelines at that time. Any station modification or renewal, and any new facility built, must meet the applicable guidelines. To renew or obtain your current license you must be able to meet the prevailing standards and have the MPE available for viewing by government agencies. If you are not beyond MPE, then the only requirement is to ensure that if the configuration of the site changes (e.g., if antennas and transmitters are added), the site is still within the parameters of the MPE guidelines.
If a site is above MPE exposure levels, a written health and safety plan acceptable to OSHA is required. This program consists of an initial survey, the adoption of administrative and engineering controls, written documentation of the program, employee training and assignment of someone to administer the program. The administrator of the program must be an “OSHA competent” person.
Typically, when OSHA visits your site on an audit, it will begin its investigation with an “opening.” An “opening” is simply an initial meeting between OSHA and the company it is investigating. This is followed by an investigation of the paper trail. Does a written safety program for all potential or real hazards exist? Are the employees trained in the implementation of the program? Do the employees understand and follow the written program? OSHA will more than likely ask three or more employees these or other related questions. Chances are that if the answers to the preceding questions are “yes,” further investigations inside the site or plant may be avoided in a routine audit. If the answers are “no” and the company lacks safety programs for perceived or real hazards, it is then showing “willful intent,” and has opened itself up to the most serious of OSHA fines. The only way to truly protect your company from these fines is to implement a written safety program following the OSHA guidelines.
In summation, all of us in the communications industry should be aware of the possibility that we may be affected in a very real way by the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The old Boy Scout motto “Be Prepared” certainly rings true when it comes to this law. The simple act of putting together an all-encompassing written safety plan can make the difference between a relatively painless visit from government agencies and financial misery.