Jan. 8, 2015 — As 2014 drew to a close, we were saddened to hear of another tower climber fatality, the 12th in so many months. Allen Lee Cotton, a 44-year-old tower climber, fell to his death from a cell tower in the middle of December in Greeneville, South Carolina.
He was working with two other climbers for Central USA Wireless, Cincinnati, at the time, but neither saw the incident occur. OSHA is investigating the incident.
Earlier in December, firefighters performed a high-angle rescue on a tower climber who had slipped off a platform and was hanging by his safety harness 150 feet off the ground. The rescue took 30 minutes to perform.
This year brought an amazing amount of attention to the safety of tower workers. It all began with a letter to the industry in February from OSHA through NATE to tower service companies, imploring the tower industry to increase its vigilance concerning safety. The agency also promised increased penalties for companies that knowingly ignored the safety of their climbers. In September, OSHA would make good on that threat with fining Wireless Horizon $134,400 for two willful and four serious safety violations for an incident that killed two cell tower workers in 2013.
The importance of tower climber safety increased in visibility at the FCC, as well. The agency examined ways to prevent future deaths of cell tower workers at the day-long Workshop on Tower Climber Safety and Injury Prevention on Oct. 15 in Washington, D.C.
Later in October, the FCC teamed with the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration to launch an apprenticeship program for telecommunications tower technicians, the Telecommunications Industry Registered Apprenticeship Program (TIRAP), which partners the government and industry stakeholders to promote safety and education in the telecommunications workforce.
TIRAP will work in concert with ongoing safety efforts, such as one by the National Association of Tower Erectors’ Wireless Industry Safety Taskforce (WIST), formed in 2013 to develop a standard for best practices for sustainable safety training.
Also in October, the Department of Labor announced a $3.25 million grant to create a college-based template for wireless infrastructure job training at Virginia State University, Petersburg, Virginia. The grant, which was written in concert with PCIA – the Wireless Infrastructure Association, allow VSU to strengthen a new program aimed at building a network of colleges to train students for high-skilled careers in wireless infrastructure, and the association will assist in managing the program.
Warriors 4 Wireless was launched to develop training and certification programs with educational institutions, such as Aiken Technical College, and industry partners, such as Grey Wolves Telecom, aimed at employing veterans of the nation’s military.
The focus was not only on the preventing tragedies. A major effort was commenced to support families whose loved ones become casualties while climbing. The Tower Industry Family Support Charitable Foundation was launched in September by the wireless industry with the lead of the National Association Tower Erectors through a joint donation of $400,000 from ClearTalk Wireless, a flat-rate wireless service provider, and the law firm of Fletcher, Heald and Hildreth.
But even with well-meaning letters, speeches and committee meetings, cell towers proved to be no less dangerous in 2014. Tragedy met young and old alike. For example, Joel Metz, a 28-year-old father of four, was decapitated on July 2, in a Metz, while replacing a boom at a tower site in Harrison County, Kentucky. Thomas Lucas, 49, fell 80 feet on Aug. 10, while painting a tower in Jo Daviess County, Illinois. Chad Louis Weller, 21, was working on communications equipment located atop of the 180-foot water tower, March 19, in Pasadena, Maryland. Just to name a few. The dozen climbers that died was just one fewer than the year before.
In the New Year, expect the industry, and AGL Media Group, to redouble our efforts to promote tower safety. More people joined the conversation on tower safety in 2014 than ever before, but it is up to the industry to follow through with safety training standards and increased educational options to ensure competent tower climbers. But, most important, the industry cannot tolerate businesses that use low-cost, poorly trained tower workers.
J. Sharpe Smith is the editor of AGL Link and AGL Small Cell Link.