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.
August 20 2014 — OSHA has handed down contrasting fines on two incidents. In one where three were killed, the fine was $14,000, while another incident where no one was hurt the fine was $52,000. The difference? The latter was cited for a “willful” violation, which brings with it a bigger price tag.
S and S Communications Specialists has been fined $14,000 by OSHA for two serious workplace violations following a tower collapse that killed three last February in Clarksburg, West Virginia.
Hulbert, Oklahoma-based S and S Communications Specialists was contracted to perform structural modifications to an existing cell tower, including replacing diagonal bracing and installing leg stiffeners and new guy wires. The tower collapsed while the employees were removing diagonal bracing.
OSHA inspectors cited the company for violating section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act for directing employees to remove diagonal structural members on communication towers without using temporary braces or supports, and for allowing employees to be tied off to bracing that was not capable of supporting at least 5,000 pounds. A serious violation occurs when there is substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known.
The fine consisted of a $7,000 penalty for each of the two violations, which is the maximum amount allowed by law for a serious violation. S and S can contest the fines.
Coolville Free Climb Costs Company $52,000 Fine
A free climb by two workers on a 195-foot communication tower under construction in Coolville, Ohio, has resulted in several safety citations, according to an OSHA press release. Morlan Enterprises was cited by OSHA for one willful and eight serious safety violations, with proposed penalties of $52,500.
Morlan Enterprises was contracted by New Era Broadband Services of Coolville to build towers and install antennas at 20 locations in Meigs County as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Rural Utilities Service-funded rural broadband build out.
“The willful violation cites the company for failing to ensure workers climbing the tower were using effective and adequate fall protection, including installing a climbing cable to the tower,” OSHA wrote. “Eight serious violations were cited for failing to provide workers with training on fall hazards, provide personal protective equipment, such as shock-absorbing lanyards and hard hats, and requiring workers to purchase their own fall arrest harnesses and other protective equipment.”
Other violations involved failing to make provisions for medical attention. A willful violation is one committed with intentional, knowing or voluntary disregard or plain indifference to employee safety, according to OSHA.
Based on a reevaluation of the evidence and other factors in the case, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has reduced the number and severity of its citations and the accompanying fines against Pinpoint Towers for an incident in 2013, which resulted in a tower climber fatality.
In the final report, Pinpoint Services was found to have two “other than serious” citations and was fined $7,000 for each citation. Both of these fines were paid.
Originally, the tower company was fined $21,000 and cited with three serious safety violations after a worker died from a fall from a cell tower in November 2013 in Wichita, Kansas. The company subsequently contested the citations before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.
The 25-year-old worker was performing maintenance when he fell 50 feet while descending from the tower.
In February 2014, OSHA and the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE) sent a letter to all communications tower employers urging compliance with safety standards after 13 climbers died in 2013. The letter said, “OSHA will consider issuing willful citations, in appropriate cases, for a failure to provide and use fall protection.” The agency also promised to pay attention to contract oversight issues.
OSHA has also created a new Web page targeting the safety issues surrounding communication tower work. It can be found at www.osha.gov/doc/topics/communicationtower/index.html.
Last week, during the National Association of Tower Erectors annual conference, the associations Wireless Industry Safety Task Force launched what it calls a 100% Tie-Off 24/7 Awareness Campaign. The objective is to ensure that technicians who climb telecommunications towers as part of their work are tethered to those towers at all times for protection against injury should they fall. “One hundred percent tie-off is the law and needs to be strictly emphasized and adhered to at all times,” said Pat Cipov, NATE’s chairwoman, in a prepared statement.
Sonya Roshek, a task force member who works for tower builder Black & Veatch, said that one of the early issues identified as a result of the task force’s collaborative efforts is the fact that many of the tower-site accidents that compromise safety involve situations where the tower technician was not properly tied-off to the structure.
“We believe strongly that everyone involved in the industry has a role to play when it comes to emphasizing 100 percent tie-off in order to ensure a safer work environment and prevent future accidents,” she said.
Speaking to an audience at the NATE Unite 2014 conference, Todd Schlekeway, the association’s executive director, said that the campaign will include the filming of public service announcements, paid advertising, earned media efforts, a social media component and collaboration with state wireless associations.
David Michaels, U.S. assistant secretary of labor and the head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, delivered a keynote speech via video recording to viewers at a NATE Unite luncheon. “In 2013, more communications tower workers were killed than in the previous two years combined,” Michaels said. “In the first few weeks of 2014, we have already seen four more fatalities.”
The OSHA chief said that most of the fatalities are due to falls. “We found that many of the workers who are killed were wearing harnesses that were not tied off,” he said. “Employers are responsible for training workers and ensuring that their tower crews are consistently protected. By reinforcing their own safety policies, by training, and retraining workers, and by making sure subcontractors follow all safety rules, employers can create a culture of safety.”
Michaels said OSHA has instructed its field staff to pay special attention to investigating communications tower incidents. He said OSHA plans to inspect more communications towers and will ask its state partners to do the same. “You can rest assured we will continue to do all that we can to improve safety in this industry — even new regulations, if necessary,” he said. “These tragedies should not be written off as the cost of doing business.”
Mark Lies II, an attorney with Seyfarth Shaw who specializes in occupational safety and health matters, described Michaels’ speech as a series of slaps to the face of the industry. Speaking during a NATE Unite conference session, Lies warned tower technician employers that OSHA is likely to raise the classification of some tower safety violations to “willful,” which would have a serious effect on contractors’ ability to do business. “Many customers will not do business with a company that has a record of willful violations of OSHA regulations,” he said.
Another task force member, Julius C. “Jake” Washington, said in a prepared statement that his company is proud to participate in the 100 percent tie-off campaign. Washington is a project manager at Jacobs Engineering. “With the collective, industry-wide influence of the companies represented on the task force, we have a unique opportunity to raise the profile around the 100 percent tie-off requirement and drive home the message that there should be a zero-tolerance policy regarding this law,” he said.
Participating companies and organizations affirming their commitment to the 100% Tie-Off 24/7 Awareness Campaign include:
Alcatel-Lucent, American Tower, AT&T, Bechtel, Black & Veatch, Crown Castle, Ericsson, General Dynamics, Goodman Networks, Jacobs Engineering, MasTec Network Solutions, Motorola Solutions, National Association of Tower Erectors, Nexius, Nokia Solutions and Networks, SAI Communications, SBA Communications, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, Velocitel, Verizon Wireless, WesTower Communications
— Don Bishop, Executive Editor, Associate Publisher, AGL magazine
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.