Before the 1980s, communication and transmission tower work was a small, highly specialized industry. Over the past 40 years, the field has dramatically expanded, driven by demand for wireless and broadcast communications. As a result, injuries and fatalities associated with this type of work have increased. Fortunately, raising awareness about communication tower hazards and adhering to safety protocols can greatly reduce the risk.
When erecting or working on communication towers, workers are required to climb fixed ladders, support structures or step bolts. This hazardous work is often done at heights ranging from 100 feet to 1,000–2,000 feet or more.
Some common communication tower hazards include falls from great heights, electrical hazards, dangers associated with hoisting personnel and equipment with base-mounted drum hoists, inclement weather, falling object hazards, equipment failure and structural collapse of towers.
What does OSHA say?
Electrical hazards are of particular concern to lineworkers. It is important to comply with OSHA’s Electric Power Generation, Transmission, and Distribution requirements when those hazards are present. The agency also touches on general industry safety requirements for telecommunication workers in CFR 1910.268.
Unfortunately, OSHA recorded 91 fatalities and 17 injuries from incidents involving communication towers from 2003–2013. Most of the fatalities (79) were due to falls, which were also the leading cause of injuries among communication tower workers, with 13 of 17 injuries.
Due to those figures, OSHA gathered information and worked with the Federal Communication Commission on industry best practices, safety practices, certifications, training and current industry consensus standards for communication towers. Currently, this information is being used to develop a draft standard on communication tower safety.
Tips to stay safe
In 2016, OSHA released “Communication Tower Best Practices” using the collected data. The document states that employers are required to provide proper safety equipment, and employees are encouraged to always use it correctly. If the appropriate PPE is not available or functioning correctly, work cannot be done. When using fall protection, all workers should recommit “100% tie-off” at least once a year. Ideally, management should also be firmly dedicated to enforcing this whenever employees are climbing.
Every communication tower climbing operation should be accompanied by comprehensive safety planning, including a job hazard analysis and an emergency action plan. Work may not be conducted when adverse weather conditions make working from heights too dangerous. There should be a reporting process and mechanisms in place for discovering unsafe or hazardous conditions. Tower climbers and workers on the ground should be familiar with how to report them.
Additionally, workers should never work at heights when their physical or mental health is impaired. An employee on medication that impacts their physical abilities, such as over-the-counter cold and flu remedies that can cause drowsiness, should not work. Work should never be conducted under the influence of alcohol or recreational/illicit drugs.
According to the OSHA Best Practices document, “Contractors need to ensure that there is a competent person on site at all times. This person should monitor the mental and physical well-being of climbers on his or her team. The competent person should have authority to stop an unfit employee from climbing and should be expected to exercise that authority whenever necessary to ensure the safety of employees at the site.”
All employees must be properly trained on the type of work they will be expected to perform: “Employers should ensure that employees new to tower climbing undergo comprehensive training as authorized climbers. After training, new climbers should be paired with an experienced climber as an apprentice until they have enough experience and climbing hours to undertake the competent climber training. New employees who have climbing experience should be closely monitored until their skill levels are known,” according to the document.
Workers responsible for rigging or hoisting operations require specialized training. Additionally, employees should regularly enhance their safety skills and awareness through recurring trainings and education. OSHA indicates that emphasis should be placed on inspections, including equipment (such as tools, hoisting and rigging equipment and machinery) and PPE. Workers should immediately report any issues with PPE and cease operations if it becomes compromised.
Header image by Getty Images / Charlie Chesvick.