Tower workers need safety rules
America's wireless buildout continues at a rapid pace. As it extends to more and more rural areas, the utilization of towers — as opposed to rooftops in urban areas — becomes more prevalent. Unfortunately, as this edition of MRT reports, some companies and tower climbers don't take safety as seriously as they should.
These modern-day steeplejacks do something I would never contemplate — climbing towers and literally hanging off them. It's incredibly dangerous work and all reasonable steps must be taken to ensure that serious injuries and fatalities in this sector are so incredibly rare that they can be considered statistical anomalies — accidents that occurred because of some freak circumstance.
Clearly, the National Institute for Occupational Safety, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the National Association of Tower Erectors, several states and responsible tower-construction companies are working hard to make this happen.
However, what we naturally don't want to see is regulation for the sake of regulation. While standards must be set and adherence to those standards ensured, we also must avoid the danger of regulating this industry to death. Thus, it becomes vitally important that all segments of the industry participate in the drafting of reasonable, enforceable rules that are not so costly in compliance that no company can afford to build towers.
That raises a related point, which is whether as a society we should create laws to literally save people from themselves. It would appear that — although I have no direct knowledge of this — at least some of the tower accidents occurred when members of the construction crew knowingly failed to comply with standard safety protocols.
I personally believe that, in the case of towers, we do need to protect people from themselves to some degree. As a society, we are not in a position to know whether every company performs the proper amount of training for every employee. Thus, given the level of danger endemic to this kind of work, regulation is necessary. More importantly, enforcement of those same rules and regulations must be vigorous, or they become meaningless.
Of course, in a litigation context, regulation and standards also create a baseline to help determine fault when an accident has occurred. Whether it is a careless worker or a negligent company that causes the accident, well-defined regulations can clarify which party is responsible and liable for damages, if applicable.
However, that “bright line” can be a double-edged sword. While a particular rule or regulation gives comfort to parties that their efforts are sufficient to meet the law, they sometimes discourage parties to go further, when and where feasible. As an example, I have been asked quite often some version of the following question: “What's the least that I have to do to meet the FCC's construction requirements for my two-way system.”
Nevertheless, having such a baseline ensures that responsible companies at least meet a certain standard, which the industry must ensure is reasonable by balancing the various interests. Thus, I agree with NATE that uniform safety standards are necessary. Further, such standards should be nationwide, to prevent companies from having to navigate a labyrinth of state regulations. The Midwest pilot regional partnership described in this edition's cover story is a good step in this direction.
Editor's Note: Alan Tilles is counsel to numerous entities in the private radio, Internet and entertainment industries. He is a partner in the law firm of Shulman, Rogers, Gandal Pordy & Ecker.
In this space last month, Tilles criticized the Balanced Approach Plan, which would rely on technology solutions to the interference problems that plague the 800 MHz band. It should have been noted that Tilles served on the committee that drafted the rival Consensus Plan — which supports re-banding — on behalf of clients Aeronautical Radio, Inc. (ARINC) and the Personal Communications Industry Association (PCIA). Previously, Tilles disclosed this relationship in the August, 2003 edition of MRT.