Tower industry needs government oversight
I listened to a webinar this week on tower safety that featured Don Doty, the owner of Doty-Moore Tower services and the chairman of the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE) board of directors. It also featured Mark Lies, NATE’s strategic general counsel. The session, hosted by Chriss Scherer, editor of Radio, another Penton publication, was quite good, particularly the extensive Q&A.
Doty outlined numerous things tower owners, contractors and climbers should be doing to lessen the risks associated with one of America’s most dangerous professions. Among the tips: ensure that all climbers are tethered at all times when above heights greater than six feet—a great idea, since most tower accidents involve falls; ensure that climbers are properly equipped and adequately trained; ensure that the proper due diligence is done before choosing a contractor; ensure that climbers aren’t under the influence of substances that could impair their judgment and physical abilities; and ensure that any chosen contractor has a job-specific safety plan in place and a compliance officer at each site.
All are sound suggestions. But that’s exactly the problem. They’re suggestions, not mandates. Doty spoke of the potential consequences for those who don’t heed the advice, and they are considerable. Climbers could lose their lives. Tower owners and contractors could lose their livelihoods should they be found liable in a climber’s death and subsequently face substantial civil and regulatory penalties.
Certainly, tower owners, contractors and climbers who don’t take their safety responsibilities seriously could run afoul of the Occupation and Health Safety Administration (OSHA). But the reality is that this is a “catch me if you can” situation, as there are way too many towers and far too few enforcement agents. I have no doubt that the majority of the tower industry cares about safety and is doing something about it. But every industry—the tower industry isn’t alone in this regard—is populated to some degree with owners and contractors who are willing to place the bottom line ahead of safety and with workers who believe they are invincible, if not immortal. That’s a recipe for disaster.
Fortunately, change may be on its way. Lies spoke of a Senate report issued in April that was critical of OSHA’s enforcement performance. The report suggested remedies that included more citations, increased monetary penalties and criminal liability. Further, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) has introduced legislation that would amend the OSHA Act to substantially increase financial penalties, which currently are set at 1986-dollar levels, Lies said. In addition, according to Lies, Kennedy wants OSHA to keep any fines that result from an enforcement activity—money that today goes into the U.S. Treasury—in the belief that this would provide OSHA with greater incentive to perform the watchdog role for which it was created. If nothing else, it would provide funds to hire more enforcement agents.
“There is going to be a significantly changed landscape,” regarding OSHA, Lies predicted.
Let’s hope so. NATE is doing a fantastic job educating its members about safety techniques and strategies and evangelizing about their importance. But it doesn’t have the teeth to force its members to comply, much less those who aren’t members. OSHA does—and should.
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