October 27, 2013 — “I not only lost my son. I lost my baby boy, my best friend and my hero.”
Those were the words of a grieving mother of a deceased tower technician as she tearfully pleaded for the wireless industry to unite and prevent future deaths of cell tower workers at the Workshop on Tower Climber Safety and Injury Prevention, held Oct. 14 in Washington, D.C.
“We need to make some serious changes in this industry to stop the senseless loss of life. This workshop doesn’t need to be a place where people talk and ask questions. It needs to be the start of real change,” said Kathy Pierce, mother of Chad Weller, a 21-year-old tower technician who died last March in a fall while working on an antenna mounted on a 180-foot water tower.
Pierce spoke about how her son died and how his death was preventable. A combination of hazardous weather, working alone and the use of an ill-fitting safety harness conspired to set the stage for his death.
“Chad never should have lost his life that day,” Pierce said. “His death could have been prevented simply be not being sent up to working the tower alone. The tower had ice on it and it was raining. The foreman on site placed Chad in an extra-large harness when my son wore a medium harness.”
Tower fatalities are usually the domain of OSHA regulations, but the 24 fatalities that have occurred since January 2013 have grabbed the attention of the agency. The workshop was the result of a collaboration of FCC and Department of Labor to reduce communications tower-related fatalities and injuries. The workshop discussed factors contributing to the high rate of tower climber injuries and fatalities and best practices that ensure tower climber safety.
Noting the connection between allocation of spectrum, smart phone proliferation and cell site development, Roger Sherman, chief of the FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, said the FCC needs to “take a step back from our efforts to allocate spectrum to focus on the safety of tower climbers.”
“Tower climber safety is an important and pressing issue,” he said. “Tower fatalities occurred across the country and at a rate that is significantly higher than comparable fields. More than ten times higher than construction workers. Given the significant demand for wireless services, we are very concerned that these fatalities are going to increase.”
More than 1 million structures are homes to cellular antennas, according to the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology. Of those structures, 380,000 are at 100 feet or higher and require hands on work by technicians.
“The FCC has a keen interest in the safe deployment of these antennas,” Sherman said. “Behind ever text and streaming video, there is a radio on a tower, which must be deployed and maintained by technicians and there is a growing demand for tower climbers.”
Increase in Fatalities Caused by Tower Collapses: Harbinger of Things to Come?
The moderator of the first panel, Jessica Douma, OSHA regulatory analyst, pointed to the number of deaths that have resulted from tower collapses recently and asked if that was a trend.
Wallace Reardon, project coordinator, Workers at Heights Health and Safety Initiative, Occupational Health Clinical Centers, said some tower builds lack adequate design and engineering and are accidents waiting to happen. Additionally, because there is no regulatory oversight of the structural soundness of cell towers, it is difficult to fix the problem.
“A lot of towers are overstressed. Tower collapses are a thing that has been waiting to happen,” Reardon said. “OSHA cannot investigate an overloaded tower. They can only investigate the workers and see if they are protected.”
Dave Anthony, owner, Shenandoah Tower Services, said tower overloading and inadequate modifications are the result of work done by inexperienced tower crews. And the result can be deadly.
“We are just beginning to see deaths from tower collapses due to improperly done modifications,” Anthony said. “Those collapses are going to increase if we do not change the way we approach them.”
Only 25 percent of contractors have the ability to perform a modification upgrade to a tower and do it safely and effectively, Anthony said, yet they are all bidding for the jobs.
“Employers will take on jobs that the tower climbers are not prepared to do and not equipped to do,” Anthony said. “The tower crews are sent into the field and told to figure it out. They are not prepared. These guys are dying because they don’t know any better.”
One answer is to develop a qualification process for the contractors, involving collaboration between the tower owner, the design engineer and the contractor, according to Anthony.
“There has got to be vetting of the process and methodology. If we collaborate we can solve the problem. The how deal with safety is to identify the risk and then mitigate it.
Anthony said employers need provide a safe workplace for their employees. He said that he uses only competent, well-trained workers, which are more expensive to employ. But he maintained that tower climbers needed to be protected.
“We have to change from the top down,” Anthony said. “We will still be faced with the same issues down the road if the judgment is made that profits are more important than the safety of the workers. We have to stop protecting our bottom line and start protecting the worker. Let’s find those solutions together.”
J. Sharpe Smith is the editor of AGL Link and Small Cell Link. He can be reached at 515 279 2282 or ssmith (at) aglmediagroup.com