In light of the 13 deaths in 2013 and four deaths so far this year, OSHA has sent a letter to tower industry employers, imploring them to follow procedures for keeping tower climbers safe. The letter said that penalties would be increased for OSHA rule violations and that investigations would look harder at multi-company sites where the rules are violated.
“OSHA has found that a high proportion of these incidents occurred because of a lack of fall protection: either employers are not providing appropriate fall protection to employees, or they are not ensuring that their employees use fall protection properly,” wrote David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health. “It is imperative that the cell tower industry take steps immediately to address this pressing issue: no worker should risk death for a paycheck.”
The National Association of Tower Erectors collaborated with OSHA on the letter, distributing it to its membership.
“Both NATE and OSHA have the same goals in terms of advocating for workplace safety and ensuring that workers in our industry are able to go home safely each and every night,” said Todd Schlekeway, NATE executive director.
Jocko Vermillion, vice president tower safety, Safety Controls Technology, told AGL Link that he is “glad to see OSHA recognizing there is a problem and stepping up its enforcement.”
Vermillion is a tower safety specialist and OSHA trainer for Safety Controls Technology, who spent 10 years working as a national tower expert with OSHA. Now that he is in the private sector Vermillion works with tower companies to improve their safety programs, making sure they follow OSHA standards.
OSHA is increasing penalties by categorizing all citations as “willful violations of a standard,” which is the highest violation below a criminal charge. Vermillion, who is often hired to consult companies that have been cited by OSHA for safety violations, said he didn’t believe that most companies willfully disregard the fall protection standard.
“The good thing about that is it requires the compliance officer do a more thorough investigation,” he said. “I think the results of the more thorough investigations will prove that companies are better than we think they are.”
Cell tower construction is notorious for multiple levels of subcontractors and a lack of accountability of those contractors that hire the subcontractors. Michaels promised enforcement against subcontractors that break the rules under the Occupation Safety and Health Act, but also those companies that employ them.
Michaels wrote, “During inspections, OSHA will be paying particular attention to contract oversight issues, and will obtain contracts in order to identify not only the company performing work on the tower, but the tower owner, carrier and other responsible parties in the contracting chain.”
Vermillion applauded Michaels’ effort to go up the chain of command and make companies accountable for the subcontractors they hire, but doubted that increased enforcement would lead to increased citations. “OSHA’s power is weak. I don’t think they are going to be able to uphold a lot of the violations that they do issue. It is difficult when there is a contract signed by both companies. Additionally, the burden of proof of the violation is on OSHA,” he said.
However, once a company gets a citation, whether it can successfully defend it or not, it will increase the culture of safety there, according to Vermillion. “A company that gets a citation always becomes a better company, because they learn what did wrong and then they fix it by stepping up their safety program,” he said.