Partnering for safety’s sake
Whether commercial wireless carriers and public-safety agencies will want to be involved with the partnership is questionable. The mobile-phone industry has typically distanced itself from the safety issue since virtually every carrier has taken itself out of the capital-intensive tower-building industry by selling towers to owners such as Spectrasite or American Towers and then leasing space. Like the commercial real-estate business, most carriers are at least twice removed.
But Medlock said the incentive for carriers to join the program is a reduction in third-party liability because carriers would stipulate in contracts the requirement for work-site evaluations and proper training.
Still, NATE is pushing for a national tower-climber safety standard, as well as inspections that are based on the industry's best practices. Though it is possible that many tower companies might mandate in-house safety training, the concern is that uniform safety standards would be lacking.
With NATE's guidance, the Advisory Council on Construction Safety and Health (ACCSH), a federally mandated construction advisory group that recommends potential safety and health standards to OSHA, overwhelmingly approved a set of proposed construction standards in October that specifically address the tower-construction industry. NATE is hopeful that OSHA will consider the guidelines as a starting point for rulemaking — or at least a best-practices guide.
“At this point, we're optimistic we'll be able to see OSHA initiate some rules promulgation,” said Doty. “Once OSHA accepts the premise that towers should have their own standards, we hope it will start in 2005.”
The recommendation is based on North Carolina's new proposed tower-construction rules — expected to pass this year in the state legislature — that specifically govern tower safety. Prompted by the astounding number of tower-related deaths in the state, North Carolina's lawmakers called in the tower erector industry to help them craft specific safety standards. The state registered eight tower-related fatalities from 1997 to 2000, including a triple fatality in which the workers fell 1200 feet.
Based on North Carolina's proposed legislation, ACCSH identified best practices for 11 job-related categories, including job-site documentation, personal protective equipment, hoist usage, rigging and training. The recommendations are based on feedback from a wide range of players in the tower industry, including tower owners, insurance companies, subcontractors and suppliers.
For instance, under North Carolina's proposed rules, workers who climb communications towers must be “tied off” to a safety system at all times with fall protection provided above 6 feet. And each employer must ensure that tower climbers have been trained by, or are under the supervision of, a qualified person.
The tower industry also has come into its own of sorts. Improved technology and fall protection gear have reduced the number of injuries and fatalities, said Medlock and others involved in the tower industry.
“We know in our classes that more and more students come in with some knowledge of fall protection, equipment and the need for safety,” said Comtrain's Wilcox, whose company has certified some 20,000 tower workers during the past 10 years. “The industry awareness has expanded exponentially, and the manufacturers are improving the quality of equipment that works in this unique world of towers.”