Tower climbing and safety: Still a long way to go

Too much regulation can be a bad thing, but statistics show that tower safety in the U.S. has a long way to go. Statistics from Thomas P. Fuller, safety program director of the Health Sciences Department at Illinois State University, bear this out.

On June 15, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) closed a request for information (RFI) concerning tower safety. Next month, OSHA will update its communications tower directive, which will provide guidance on the proper use of systems meant to move workers up and down towers. In the RFI, OSHA is requesting information from carriers, tower owners, tower workers and other stakeholders concerning the causes of employee injuries and fatalities. OSHA is also looking into best practices to address these hazards.

At a recent conference, Fuller presented the results of a study of fatalities related to work at communication towers in the U.S. According to the study, there were 64 fatalities related to towers between 2002 and 2014. Some 66 percent of the fatalities were caused by not using fall protection gear at all or not using it properly.

Other causes were equipment failure at 12 percent, structural failure at 9 percent and electrocution at 4 percent. A smaller number of fatalities occurred due to faulty structures and improper work design, such as using a winch incorrectly.

In an interview, Fuller attributed little blame directly to larger tower companies, saying that they generally follow solid safety procedures. However, some of the smaller companies, often on a subcontracting basis, do not follow the same procedures.

With the lack of regulation, a tower climber who uses improper procedures and gets fired "can go down the street and get another job," Fuller said. He drew the analogy of how some tattoo artists must have a multi-year apprenticeship before providing tattoos on their own, while tower climbers sometimes work after having only minimal training.

In a statement, the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE) said that it was participating in the RFI. "NATE's comprehensive response to OSHA's RFI reflects the views of our members, who are deeply committed to enhancing worker safety," said NATE Legislative & Regulatory Committee member Jim Goldwater.

The bottom line is that tower climbing is too dangerous. Hopefully, OSHA's action will not be overly burdensome or complex, but something needs to be done.

Through some combination of regulation and education within the tower industry, at a minimum, there should be a strict standard that anyone climbing a tower be outfitted properly to prevent falls. In addition to regulation, the industry needs to build awareness and education, particularly at the level of smaller companies and subcontractors. --Jeff