Over the past 10 years, a rapid build out of wireless infrastructure throughout the country has occurred, leading to scores of employees dying or being seriously injured from falls and other mishaps while working on telecom facilities. But 2004's lower fatality rates and progress toward industry education, coupled with greater federal and state scrutiny, reveal that the communications tower industry is finally making headway to reverse its reputation as one of the most dangerous in the nation.
However, while encouraging, it is difficult to determine at this point whether the progress is the start of a trend or an aberration.
“Just two short years ago, we identified 31 deaths of tower workers on the towers. In 2004, we have only identified six deaths. Is this progress? Is this just a lucky year? We hope the trend is ongoing,” said Winton W. Wilcox, Jr., president of ComTrain L.L.C., a company that operates an international tower-safety certification program.
The industry's safety record had become so bad by 2001 that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) issued an urgent alert. It read: “Warning! Workers involved in construction and maintenance of telecommunications towers are at high risk of fatal falls.”
However, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) said it investigated eight fatalities related to tower construction and maintenance nationwide in fiscal 2004, the industry's lowest rate yet. In 2003, OSHA recorded nine fatalities related to tower accidents; in contrast, 2002 saw 16 deaths, and 2001 recorded 14.
Following the rules — or not
It's difficult to pinpoint exactly how many deaths are attributable to tower accidents partly because tower-construction workers fall into a variety of industries and categories, from steel-workers to painters. And officials may not count a death as one related to tower construction or maintenance if, for instance, a worker fell from a tower's platform and not the tower itself.
Still, even the most conservative estimates have far outpaced job-related deaths across U.S. industry as a whole. The most recent data from NIOSH estimated that the fatality rate for tower erectors — one of the smallest sectors of the construction industry — averages about 460 deaths per 100,000 employees, a startling rate compared with the five deaths per 100,000 employees for all construction industries cited by the U.S. Department of Labor. On average, accidents on towers and cranes have resulted in about 175 injuries and 25 deaths each year during the past decade.
However, Rob Medlock, area director of OSHA's Cleveland office, said tower construction sites across the country are becoming safer.
“I think there has been a tremendous education process, and fatalities in the past have received a high profile. That has brought awareness to the tower industry and where it needs improvements,” he said.
The worst accidents during the past few years were caused by companies that did not follow OSHA regulations' used improper equipment or hired untrained tower climbers, according to the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE). For instance, 21-year-old Joe Allen Johnson of Pensacola, Fla., fell 290 feet to his death last year after unhooking his safety line to move around the tower and then losing his grip. Last February, one of two workers performing routine maintenance on a 200-foot mobile wireless tower fell to his death in Alpharetta, Ga. The worker slipped off one of the tower's beams, and his safety harness failed. He was attached to a rope that either broke or gave way because of a malfunction in the mechanism that held the rope to the pole, police said.
Within the 10 OSHA regions in the U.S., half the states follows federal guidelines while the other half follows state requirements, which leads to different approaches to tower safety, said Don Doty, vice chairman of NATE, who also is a member of NATE's OSHA Relations Committee and vice president of Doty Moore Tower Services. No federal standard specifically covers tower construction, but OSHA has fall-protection standards to which tower climbers must adhere.
As a result, OSHA and NATE have taken the initiative to improve tower safety through education and partnerships.
In April 2003, John Henshaw, OSHA's assistant secretary of labor, issued a letter to more than 50 tower owners soliciting voluntary help to enforce OSHA's safety standards. The agency finds it difficult to visit sites because they often are located in remote areas. Specifically, Henshaw suggested that tower owners contract only with tower-construction companies that have excellent safety and health records and that all contracts, including those with subcontractors, force compliance with all OSHA requirements. OSHA also asked that contracts incorporate strong language stressing the importance of good safety and health programs, employee training and education, and fall-prevention systems.
NATE, serving as a repository for safety materials and educational tools for tower contractors, teamed with OSHA in 2001 to form a pilot regional partnership in the Midwest that established tower-safety best practices, which included having a trained person on site at all times and requiring 10 hours of field training for each tower climber. OSHA agreed to tighter tower safety scrutiny on job sites.
In late 2003, OSHA and NATE expanded the tower-safety program to several Eastern states, offering partnerships to communications structure contractors and tower owners. Eligibility criteria required tower contractors to implement a number of safety policies, including OSHA training sessions and work-site evaluations. To date, OSHA and NATE have partnerships with 53 tower companies, which has resulted in a noteworthy reduction in the number of serious violations related to fall protection, Medlock said.
“Our compliance officers are getting more educated,” he said. “The OSHA training institute put on four specific courses on tower safety this year, and we were helped by our agreement with NATE.”
OSHA and NATE are now working to expand the regional partnerships nationwide to include contractors, tower owners and carriers — both commercial and public-safety operators.
“It isn't the answer to all the questions, but it now gives state plans and all federally run plans the opportunity to have a set of guidelines that cover a high percentage of the typical safety problems,” Doty said.
Medlock hopes to announce the national partnership during NATE 2005, the organization's annual trade show to be held Feb. 14 to 17 in Dallas.