Competition’s price tag
In previous years, the tower industry always used equipment designed for other construction industries but adapted them for the tower industry, said Doty. For example, harnesses are now designed to give tower climbers better mobility and flexibility to move around a tower and most life lines are now retractable. Before, many accidents have involved workers unhooking harnesses and safety lines to better maneuver around towers.
But with the plethora of safety efforts moving along, OSHA and NATE still continue to battle a nagging issue: competition. Pressure to undercut the competition with the lowest bid often leads contractors to bypass proper safety equipment and training altogether in an attempt to pare their costs.
“We are concerned that there are competitors that look to try and cut corners in some places that would exclude safety practices that sometimes can take more time and equates to cost,” said Doty.
Wilcox said the entry of large general contractors that help carriers finance their buildouts are having a negative influence. These major contractors typically take 25% to 30% off the top of the budget, leaving the subcontracting to the middleman, who in turn subcontracts to much smaller companies whose profit margins usually are badly eroded.
“Contract requirements for training and certification … are expensive for the small three-to-five-man crews at the bottom of the chain,” Wilcox said.
Another problem is that credentials demonstrating expertise in working on tower projects generally aren't required. This makes it possible for anyone with an interest and willingness to climb towers to start their own contracting company, Wilcox said. Most often, the founders of these companies don't have the business knowledge or resources to establish proper safety programs, purchase equipment and train their employees.
And Wilcox cited an additional pressure affecting tower safety: a shortage of experienced and trained tower technicians.
“Not only is the supply in terms of contractors sparse, but the supply of competent project managers, contract managers and field workers managing the subcontractors is poor,” he said.
According to Wilcox, the “client,” from the tower workers' perspective, “is the poorly trained, inexperienced and often inept project manager on the site pushing to ‘get it done.’ These pushers force long dangerous hours, days without time off and — both through ignorance and greed — overlook the safety issues on sites.”