June 4, 2015 — SBA Communications, FDH Engineering and S&S Communications Specialists were among the defendants named in a lawsuit filed by the mother of the firefighter who was killed in the tragic cell tower collapse, Feb. 1, 2014, in West Virginia.
Hulbert, Oklahoma-based S&S Communications Specialists was contracted by FDH Engineering to perform structural modifications to an existing cell tower. While the employees were removing diagonal bracing, the tower collapsed, killing two workers. Subsequently, as the tower fell it hit the guy wires of another nearby tower and it became destabilized. The second tower fell killing Michael Garrett as he came to rescue the injured tower workers.
The tower climbers were beefing up the tower in anticipation of adding more equipment to the structure, replacing four or five braces at a time without attaching support braces, when the accident occurred. The lawsuit alleges that S&S knew or should have known that if the support braces were not replaced properly it would compromise the structural integrity of the tower, causing it to fall.
“It was pretty apparent why that tower came down considering the number of braces that had been removed at one time,” Miley said. “It was shocking to hear statements made to the state police that the [the tower climbers] had done it that way hundreds of times. It is probably a miracle that something like this didn’t happen earlier.” In fact, S&S Communications was cited by OSHA in August 2014 with two serious workplace violations for directing employees to remove diagonal structural members on the tower without using temporary supports. The firm was previously cited by OSHA in 2009 when a technician fell to his death from a communications tower in Missouri.
SBA hired FDH to perform the engineering work for replacing the guy wires and the support braces on the tower. The lawsuit alleges that FDH (which is now FDH Velocitel) knew that S&S did not have the engineering expertise needed for replacing the supports and guy wires.
“Once FDH prepared plans for the removal and replacement of the braces, we believe they should have taken that extra step to ensure the removal process was done safely and should have provided engineering insight into what is necessary to maintain the structural integrity of the tower while the work they have called for is being done,” said Doug Miley, an attorney who represents the plaintiff.
The lawsuit commented that the industry’s layers of contractors and subcontractors can affect safety. In certain circumstances, West Virginia law won’t allow responsibility for an accident to be delegated to an independent contractor, according to Miley. Hence, the lawsuit claims that SBA, as the owner of the towers, is ultimately responsible for the work on its tower.
“Another factor that causes safety problems in the [tower] industry is the layers of companies set up to do various tasks, which creates an environment where ultimate responsibility for almost all aspects of the workers’ safety has no clarity,” according to the lawsuit.