FCC, OSHA Forum Seeks to Prevent Tower Worker Deaths

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By Bruce Rolfsen

Feb. 11 — While a federal campaign to reduce workplace fatalities of communication tower workers helped lower the death toll to three workers in 2015—down from 12 the year before—the telecommunications industry will face increasing hazards as demand for the next generation of transmitters grows, the chairman of the FCC, Tom Wheeler, said Feb. 11.

“Now we are about to see a steep increase in demand ... We must improve on the record of last year,” Wheeler said at a workshop hosted by the Federal Communications Commission and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The workshop sessions' goal was to gauge the opinions of communications workers and employers about proposed guidance for best safety practices and updating progress toward developing certification and apprentice programs for tower workers. The meeting was a follow-up to an October 2014 gathering.

Beyond Written Requirements

Overall, there was support for the guidelines and consensus that written safety plans and contract requirements alone wouldn't succeed.

“Tower workers aren't thinking of contract language when they are tying off,” said Don Doty, representing the National Association of Tower Erectors.

Training and education were primary concerns of participants.

While industry organizations and employers are developing certification and education standards, such as the National Wireless Safety Alliance certification program, and a consensus standard (ANSI A10.48), today it is still difficult to compare company qualifications and workers' knowledge, participants said.

Some companies will state the workers are certified through a private training program, but in reality the certifications are worthless, requiring little more than making a photocopy of blank certificate then adding the worker's name.

“You don't know what the quality is as you move down the chain (of contractors),” Nick Vespa, co-owner of Southeastern Towers LLC, said.

Laurie Gebhardt, director of network compliance for Verizon Wireless, said the company uses a third-party auditor to review potential contractors' safety practices.

Another speaker, representing a company owning towers, said the business last year conducted 500 on-site safety audits of tower contractors, to determine if they were adhering to their agreements.

One practical challenge to having experienced, well-trained workers is the boom-and-bust cycle of the industry, speakers said. New workers are trained and gain experience, then leave the industry when assignments dry up.

“If you don't have work, you can't maintain people,” said Wade Sarver, a consultant and blogger.

Favored Guidance

Among specific requirements participants said the agencies should include in the final version of the best practice guidance were:

  •  designing towers with built-in safety features such working platforms and fall protection connection points,
  •  requiring 100 percent tie-off for workers at heights,
  •  allowing an employee to stop work until a safety concern is resolved,
  •  encouraging tower owners and carriers to set installation schedules that don't endanger workers because of short completion schedules and
  •  creating a safety culture that includes company managers, foremen, crew leaders and tower technicians.

    To contact the reporter on this story: Bruce Rolfsen in Washington at brolfsen@bna.com

    To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com.

    For More Information

    The draft best practices guidelines are available at http://src.bna.com/cue.

    OSHA's Web page for tower safety is https://www.osha.gov/doc/topics/communicationtower/index.html.

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