Injuries, fatalities to tower workers prompt inquiry into possible regulation.

Everyone in the communications industry must be concerned about the safety and well-being of the tower workers. Tower workers, quite literally, put their lives on the line to put up or keep up the towers that make communications possible. So we should all take notice that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is considering whether it can, and should, take regulatory steps aimed at preventing injuries or deaths during tower work. In a formal Request for Information, OSHA has requested input that will help it figure out “what steps, if any, it can take to prevent injuries and fatalities during tower work.”

OSHA’s interest here is not new. As we reported last year, an OSHA official, prompted by a rash of fatal tower accidents in 2013, issued a letter reminding all “communications tower industry employers” of their “responsibility to prevent workers from being injured or killed while working on communication towers”. Now it’s delving deeper into the tower business, casting a regulatory eye on safe work practices, training and certification practices for communication tower workers, and “potential approaches [OSHA] might take to address the hazards associated with work on communication towers”.

Of course, a number of existing standards – developed both by OSHA and by other authorities – already apply generally to some aspects of the tower construction/maintenance process. (These include the “general duty to protect” workers imposed by Occupational Safety and Health Act.) But OSHA has no standards for comprehensive coverage of tower workers … not yet, at least.

A problem confronting OSHA is the complex of business relationships in the tower business. While some communications companies own their own towers and contract directly with the construction/maintenance operations to do the work, in many other cases the towers are owned by dedicated tower companies who act as landlords, leasing tower space to those who need it. When a communications company seeks to install or upgrade its facilities, it typically will contract with a construction management company (known as a “turfing vendor”), which in turn hires subcontractors to complete certain parts of the project. Those subcontractors may further contract with still other, specialized companies to some of the work. The existence of so many layers between the communications company and the worker who actually does the work creates challenges for setting and enforcing safety rules to protect employees. Which participants in the process should be responsible for what aspects of the process, and to what degree?

OSHA is seeking input from everybody involved in the tower business – workers, communications providers, and everybody in between in the construction/maintenance process. It poses 38 separate questions (several with subparts), some directed to specifically to workers, others addressed to anyone in the contract chain. The questions include: What are the hazards faced by workers? What safety-related factors come into play in the contracting and construction process? Are there any training or certification standards in current use, and is there a need for some industry-wide standards along those lines? How (if at all) are workers covered by workers’ comp and/or employer liability insurance? Could alternative tower designs improve safety? Should an OSHA standard be limited to tower used for communications purposes, or should it include towers used for other purposes? The list of questions is extensive and comprehensive.

OSHA’s Request for Information developed out of a joint workshop organized by the Department of Labor, OSHA, and the FCC last fall, during which two panels explored (a) the causes and prevention of tower climber fatalities and (b) possible industry-wide solutions to reduce the risks faced by tower workers. (You can see a recording of the workshop here.) The Request for Information is the next logical step. If you participate in any way in tower industry, now is your chance to speak up. While it’s far from certain that OSHA will ultimately impose industry-wide standards, it’s clear that OSHA is thinking along those lines and is looking for guidance.

Comments and other information will be due to be submitted to OSHA by June 15, 2015.