February 5, 2014 — The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) gets high marks for its recently released report on its investigation of the tower collapses that claimed two tower workers and a volunteer firefighter.
The report, which is part of NIOSH’s Firefighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program, focused on the 28-year-old male volunteer firefighter who died Feb. 1, 2014, after being struck by a collapsing cell tower while rescuing an injured construction worker who had been hurt in the collapse of a separate nearby cell phone tower.
NIOSH releases reports that offer details about accidents that kill firefighters and what steps could have been taken to avoid injury. In the case of the tower collapse that occurred in Clarksburg, West Virginia, NIOSH investigated because one of the men involved was a firefighter.
The report points to several contributing factors, such as the sequential collapses of two cell phone towers, ineffective incident command and lack of situational awareness. And it made several recommendations on ways to avoid a similar tragedy.
The recommendations target better training and increased on-site supervision. Firefighters need to be trained in situational awareness, personal safety and accountability. Pre-incident plans should be developed for deploying to technical rescue incidents and conducting a risk benefit analysis for the deployment.
The NIOSH report on that tragedy is refreshingly helpful, and a good example of what should be done in the tower industry after an accident. Unlike the investigations of air accidents, which are televised, it is hard to secure much information about a tower accident after OSHA begins an investigation. Then there is silence for about six months while the investigation takes place — long enough for us to forget about it. After OSHA announces its conclusions concerning the accident, a reporter must file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to find out more about the investigation.
A recent blog post by Wade Sarver, a tower climber safety advocate, reminds us that this year’s Super Bowl landed on the anniversary of last year’s tragic tower collapse. (“Lest We Not Forget February 1 of 2014 was NOT Super.”) Indeed, tower fatalities happen and, all too quickly, become statistics. Part of the problem is that there is not enough discussion of why an accident occurred and how it could be avoided.
The companies certainly don’t, and shouldn’t be expected to, talk about an accident because of the threat of litigation. But that is not always true. When the press accounts said that a tower in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, had collapsed on January 29 trapping two workers underneath it, Viaero Wireless spoke up.
A company spokesman told the Star Herald that it was not a collapse. The workers, who were treated and released at a local hospital, were attaching an antenna array to a section on the ground, which would then be hoisted on top of the tower assembly. Gusting winds, measured at 25 mph to 35 mph, blew over the tower section injuring the men.
“This portion [of the tower] was 15 feet tall and one worker was 4 to 6 feet up the portion, while the other was 8 to 10 feet. Both were using all required safety equipment and all safety protocols had been adhered to, as Viaero reported to OSHA. A strong gust of wind blew the portion over onto the ground, along with the workers. Other Viaero workers on the site immediately responded, providing assistance to the two men until EMTs arrived at the scene within minutes,” Viaero spokesman Mike Felicissimo said in a prepared statement.
The Viaero spokesman said procedures have been changed to avoid that type of accident in the future, but the spokesman did not explain how. That is just the type of information we do need.
There is another ray of hope. Dr. Bridget Hester, head of the Hubbell Foundation, has taken the first step to uncovering more information about incidents happen on towers. She filed 315 FOIA requests to learn more about tower fatalities between 1984 and 2013. Her intention is to glean as much information about the causes of these deaths as possible and disseminate the information to the public. Her reason is simple. Start a grass roots effort for a safer workplace for climbers through the knowledge of the causes of accidents.
It is something we need more of in the tower industry.
Click here to see the NIOSH report.