The demand for wireless communication technology has caused huge increases in the number of communication towers erected, totaling about 76,000 annually in the United States alone. 118 workers died between 1992-1998 while working on towers. 93 of those deaths came about because workers fell off towers, 18 died because towers collapsed and another 4 workers died because of electrocutions The death-ratio of communication workers is 10 times that of other industries.
Below a report by Jeffrey Silva where he provides some statistics and concerns regarding the safety of working on towers in the USA. Please note that safety regulations and legal liabilities in Canada are different and are for the most part goverened by the Canada Labour Code, Part II.
Tower climbing: deadliest job in U.S.
July 9 2008 - 5:59 am EDT Jeffrey Silva RCR Wireless News
Despite ongoing government and industry efforts to improve safety, maintenance of mobile-phone and other communications towers continues to be the most hazardous work around. And because of the relatively small number of employees in the business compared to other industry sectors, tower climbing - which suffered five fatalities during a 12-day span this spring and seven deaths overall this year so far - may also be the most overlooked, deadly job in the country. The recent spike in tower fall fatalities follows a reprieve in deaths between early December and April. It was a very bad year in 2006, when 18 tower workers lost their lives. The tower fatalities come during continued growth and expansion in the wireless industry, which is in the midst of another phase of infrastructure construction with the infusion into the market of more spectrum for 3G, WiMAX and other wireless services.
According to WirelessEstimator.com, an online resource for the tower industry that tracks tower accidents, at least half of this year's fatalities were linked to AT&T Mobility projects. However, it remains unclear whether any association can be drawn between the uptick in tower industry deaths and the current era of 3G network buildout. The recent spate of accidents must be viewed as an industry-wide cause for concern, both on the carrier and climber levels," said Craig Lekutis, president of WirelessEstimator and a former tower industry manager. "There were too many deaths in too limited a period of time. However, it would be difficult to try to define a trend, such as the rush to deploy 3G based upon seven fatalities." Lekutis added: "There are a number of data limitations that hinder comparison and analysis, but one thing is clear, the majority of these deadly falls would not have happened if the climber had been tied off 100% of the time. It appears that all of the tower technicians that died had the appropriate personal protection equipment available to them. They just didn't use it properly."
Tower fall fatalities have grabbed the attention of the Bush administration. "Tower climbing remains the most dangerous job in America," said Edwin Foulke Jr., head of the Occupational, Safety and Health Administration, in prepared remarks for the annual conference of the National Association of Tower Erectors earlier this year in Nashville. It was the second straight year Foulke addressed the group. "The majority of fatalities are the result of climbers not being tied off to a safe anchorage point at all times or relying upon faulty personal protection equipment," Foulke stated. "Many fatalities have occurred during the erection, retrofitting or dismantling of a tower. 'Tie or Die!' has become synonymous with the requirement for 100% fall protection." "OSHA is conducting investigations of the tower deaths that have occurred in federal OSHA states," OSHA said in a statement to RCR Wireless News, adding that offices in Jackson, Miss., and San Antonio were currently investigating recent tower accidents. OSHA has partnered with NATE to develop training programs to improve workplace safety and to increase awareness among wireless providers, tower companies and general contractors about occupational dangers as well as addressing them. "If there's one [death], that's too many," said Patrick Howey, executive director of NATE. "It really comes down to we want to eliminate all fatalities." Howey said key stakeholders in the tower supply chain - tower owners, cellular carriers and general contractors - have to be focused on safety to improve the status quo. "We could like for them to look at safety as the only way to do the job."
June 2, NATE held a Web cast safety tailgate talk with Chairman Don Doty. The event is part of the association's 'It's Up to You' campaign. The Web cast can be replayed at natehome.com. But the group's strong emphasis on safety may not be enough to reduce the fatality rate of tower climbers. The OSHA-NATE tower safety guidelines are voluntary. Though OSHA has some construction safety regulations that are applicable to tower climbers, there are no comprehensive federal regulations specific to the tower industry. North Carolina has statewide tower safety rules, and Michigan is considering adopting a tower safety standard as well. "Although I can't underscore their importance enough, we have to be careful that we don't become over-dependent upon tailgate sessions to address the problem," stated Wireless Estimator's Lekutis. "Best-practices safety standards are important and, although their fatality reduction results can't be accurately measured, it's clear that they do provide a greater awareness of the problem and the tools to help in saving lives. NATE has done an excellent job in promulgating these standards."
Labor union arguments: Michael Belzer, associate professor of industrial relations in the Departments of Economics and Interdisciplinary Studies at Wayne State University, and organized labor argues tower safety is hurt by the lack of unionization in a business where general contractors subcontract work to smaller firms that may lack training, proper equipment or English language fluency. "It's clear when you do training for the non-union side it doesn't stick," said Belzer. Labor union safety specialists point out there is an inherent pressure to complete work on schedule, or better yet ahead of deadline, with financial incentives offered for getting work completed sooner rather than later. There are also financial pressures, especially in the current economic downturn. A worker without union representation, according to labor experts, is more likely than an employee affiliated with organized labor to agree to work at an unsafe site because of fear of losing work. They also said there is a lack of legal liability and accountability for companies that hire general contractors which in turn subcontract out work.
Indeed, a loophole in OSHA guidelines finds tower owners and cellular carriers free of blame when a tower accident occurs. OSHA enforcement kicks in when there is an employer-employee relationship. But if the owner is not on-site and is not controlling the employees - a scenario common in tower construction - OSHA cannot hold tower owners or wireless providers liable. As such, it is usually a small subcontractor that is fined when OSHA determines a safety violation has occurred. However, in some cases families of deceased tower workers have filed lawsuits targeting wireless providers and tower companies. AT&T Mobility, Sprint Sites U.S.A and American Tower L.P. are ensnarled in tower fatality-related litigation.
In 2000, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health said that from 1992 to 1997, nearly 100 workers died from falls and other injuries related to tower construction. Sixteen tower construction workers died on the job in 2003, according to an OSHA. NIOSH estimated at that time the risk for fatal injuries among telecom tower workers ranges from 49 to 468 injury-related deaths per 100,000 employees, compared with about five deaths per 100,000 employees in all other U.S. industries.
David LeGrande, director of occupational safety and health at the Communications Workers of America, said the fatality rate in the tower industry is especially alarming in view the relatively few deaths in the telecom industry generally. "The only way this can be done [improving tower safety] is by passage of [federal] regulations," said LeGrande. "It's no wonder there are as many fatalities as there are."