People are Dying for Better Cell Service

Working from heights is dangerous. Whether you’re a construction worker on top of a 10-story building or a “do it yourselfer” installing new gutters on your home, you are at risk of falling and seriously injuring yourself.

Imagine spending your day dangling from 2,000 feet above ground. That’s an inevitable part of the job description for cell tower workers. During the past three years, 33 of those workers died on the job.

Cell tower worker deaths by the numbers
Advances in mobile device technology have fueled demand for better cell phone service and faster data downloads. Simply put, we want what we want, and we want it now. But progress comes at a price.

In 2012, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recorded two cell phone worker deaths. In 2013, that number skyrocketed to 13, and it grew again in 2014 to 14 deaths.

Communication tower workers are more than 10 times as likely to be killed on the job as construction workers, according to Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels. Their risk of dying on the job is 25- to 30-times greater than the average U.S. worker.

What’s driving the trend?
With cell phone use skyrocketing, the industry is calling on more workers to build new communication towers and upgrade existing towers. An increasing number of those workers are new to the industry and unfamiliar with its hazards.

Many of the accidents OSHA investigated happened when workers were replacing structural components or strengthening towers to accommodate increased capacity:

  • In some cases, too many diagonals were taken out without adequate bracing.
  • In others, workers weren’t given clear directions about how to do the work while maintaining structural integrity.
  • And too often, OSHA found that the worker was wearing a harness that was not tied off.

What is OSHA doing about it?
OSHA instructed its compliance officers to inspect active tower worksites and make sure employers are fulfilling their obligations. OSHA stresses, however, that it wants employers to go beyond mere compliance.

So, it launched a website dedicated to cell tower safety. It also partnered with the National Association of Tower Erectors, the Federal Communications Commission and other stakeholders to promote best practices. As part of the initiative, OSHA asked stakeholders for their input on reducing injuries and fatalities.

What can you do?
The real work of preventing cell tower worker deaths has to happen on the ground. Employers and workers must collaborate to ensure everyone goes home safely at the end of the day.

Provide personal protective equipment: OSHA requires employers to provide appropriate fall protection equipment, train employees how to use the equipment, and consistently supervise and enforce its use.

Train employees to do their jobs safely: Prior to their initial assignments, it is critical for employers to train new hires and monitor them to ensure they follow safe work practices. Training should include best practices for climbing, such as maintaining three-point contact, tying off every time and understanding that weather conditions on the ground may be drastically different than on top of the tower.

Prepare workers for hoisting operations: Fixed ladders with attached climbing devices are OSHA’s preferred method for accessing workstations. When an employee must climb a tower repeatedly and hoist materials, the industry best practice is to hoist employees to work level on the tower.

Hoist operators must be trained on the entire hoist system, including classroom instruction and a minimum of 40 hours of experience as a hoist operator (see below). Workers being hoisted must have received fall protection training and know how to safely move up and down the tower.

Carefully select contractors:
The selection process should include safety criteria and close oversight of subcontracting. “Checked boxes” and basic contract language may not provide enough information.

Prepare for inspections: OSHA pays particular attention to contract oversight issues during inspections. Compliance officers will review contracts to identify the company performing tower work, as well as the tower owner, carrier and other responsible parties in the contracting chain.

A word about fixed ladders
Fixed ladders with attached climbing devices are the preferred method for accessing workstations because they allow for conventional fall protection. OSHA recommends the following prevention steps for tower workers and anyone else who uses ladder safety devices:

  • Train workers to safely erect, use, maintain and disassemble the ladder safety device before they begin working.
  • Inspect equipment for visible defects and damage before each use. Never use defective equipment.
  • Research the product’s safety history before purchasing it, and register all equipment with the manufacturer to receive safety notices and recall information.
  • Do not exceed the manufacturer’s load rating for the ladder safety device and its components.
  • Connect the sleeve to the correct D-ring on the body harness as specified by the manufacturer.
  • Ensure the ladder safety device’s individual components are compatible.

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