With 17 preventable deaths in the last 14 months, regulators send a message to everybody involved with tower work.

A great many communications operations  – broadcasters, telecom, cable, public safety – utilize towers in some capacities. So it caught our attention when our friends at Radio World reported on an open letter released recently by David Michaels, Ph.D., MHP, addressed to “Dear Communication Tower Industry Employer”. The letter highlights an important area of regulation for anybody responsible for a tower. (You may know Dr. Michaels better as the Head Honcho — technically correct title: Deputy Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health in the Department of Labor — at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).)

The gist of the letter: There has been a rash of fatal accidents involving tower workers. Thirteen deaths in 2013, four more reported already in 2014.

And, according to Michaels, all of those deaths were preventable.

Aggravating that already tragic report is OSHA’s conclusion that a “high proportion” of the deaths occurred because of a “lack of fall protection” – either inadequate protection or failure to ensure that tower workers are using the available protection properly – for which the workers’ employers are responsible.

So Michaels is using his open letter to remind employers, in no uncertain terms, of their “responsibility to prevent workers from being injured or killed while working on communication towers”. Who is the target audience? Not only the company that hires the workers, but also tower owners and “other responsible parties in the contracting chain”.

In particular, Michaels identifies the following important considerations (which we quote verbatim):

  • Prior to their initial assignments, it is critical for newly hired workers to be adequately trained and monitored to ensure that safe work practices are learned and followed.
  • As required under the OSH Act, when working on existing communication towers, employees must be provided with appropriate fall protection, trained to use this fall protection properly, and the use of fall protection must be consistently supervised and enforced by the employer. Fall hazards are obvious and well known, and OSHA will consider issuing willful citations, in appropriate cases, for a failure to provide and use fall protection. States with their own occupational safety and health plans may have additional requirements. A full list of State plans is available at http://www.osha.gov/dcsp/osp/index.html.
  • 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.
  • Contractor selection should include safety criteria and close oversight of subcontracting, if allowed at all. Simple "check the box" contract language may not provide enough information to evaluate a contractor’s ability to perform the work safely.

Over and above those steps, Michaels also urges one and all to “do everything you can to prevent these needless injuries and deaths before anyone else is hurt”. That, of course, should go without saying. But in case that message is lost on some callous folks, Michaels also warns that OSHA is prepared to issue “financial penalties” if circumstances warrant.

If you own or are responsible for a tower, this is a wake-up call. In addition to Michaels’s letter, OSHA has prepared a website with a wealth of information about safety considerations when it comes to communication towers. Standards, compliance assistance, other useful resources – they’re all there. It’s a must-read, must-bookmark site.