In a February 11th news bulletin, the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) expressed concern “about the alarming increase in preventable injuries and fatalities at communication tower worksites,” and announced it was “increasing its focus on tower safety.” At that point, five weeks into 2014, cell tower work had caused four occupational fatalities for the year – the deaths of three cell tower workers and of one fire fighter. Now, just over a month later, three more cell tower workers have died on the job. On March 19th, a 21-year old from Maryland was killed while working on a tower not far from Baltimore-Washington International Airport that was being decommissioned next to a newly built tower, and on March 25th, two workers were killed while working on a 250-foot high tower near Blaine, Kansas.
In this most recent fatal incident, 25-year old Seth Garner of Saint Peters, Missouri and 38-year old Martin Powers of Saint Charles, Missouri, were in the process of removing a 256-foot tower that was no longer in service, when the tower collapsed. Pottawatomie County Sheriff Greg Riat confirmed the workers’ names and that the tower was located at a Union Pacific Railroad site. Michael Moon, Acting Area Director for OSHA’s Wichita Area Office said in an interview that the men were working for Wireless Horizon, Inc., a Missouri-based company. Moon, explained that an OSHA investigator was on site and that OSHA was in conference with Wireless Horizon, Inc. At this point, Moon said, no other companies are involved in the investigation but that could change as things progress. Wireless Horizon, Inc. has not responded to requests for information or comment on the incident.
This is not the first time Wireless Horizon has had a fatal incident at one of its work sites. In 2005, an employee was killed in a fall from a tower while working to dismantle an unused microwave tower. According to the OSHA accident investigation summary, the work crew was maneuvering what’s called a gin pole, when part of that pole began to slide down the tower face and caused one of the workers to fall 120 feet to his death. Wireless Horizon was cited for one serious violation and initially fined $1500. The final penalty paid was $750. (Low penalty amounts, even in cases when workers die, are not uncommon due to the small size of many of the companies that employ these workers.)
The company that employed the two workers killed on February 1, 2014 also had a previous fatal accident, in 2009. In that incident the company, S&S Communication Specialists, Inc. was cited for two serious violations and fined $3,000. According to the Wireless Estimator, OSHA fines for cell tower worker fatalities range from a low of $300 to a high of $125,000.
According to a report from the Wireless Estimator, which aggregates and reports news and information about the communications tower industry, the March 25, 2014 incident also involved a gin pole, a lifting device with a series of blocks, shackles, pulleys and cables that are used to raise and lower towers. Gin poles have been involved in a number of other companies’ fatal cell tower incidents as well – incidents dating back more than 15 years. Some of these fatalities have been the subject of investigations by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation (FACE) program.
Long-standing, unresolved issues
Fatal and catastrophic falls during communication tower construction and maintenance – resulting from gin pole incidents among others – also prompted NIOSH to issue an alert in 2001. Like the 2014 OSHA notice, NIOSH’s alert cited the increasing use of wireless communication devices as responsible for increased tower construction. It also cited fall hazards as a primary danger. According to estimates of the numbers of workers employed in tower and construction maintenance at the time, NIOSH calculated that the industry’s rate of fatalities was “nearly 10 to 100 times the average rate of 5 deaths per 100,000 workers across all industries.”
NIOSH also noted the difficulty of assessing the exact number of workers employed in communications tower construction and maintenance, as these workers were categorized in a variety of occupations. At the time NIOSH noted that a review of available data identified “118 deaths associated with work on telecommunication towers from 1992 through 1998. These deaths included 93 falls, 18 telecommunication tower collapses, and 4 electrocutions. However, the number of deaths identified here should be considered a minimum because identification methods are not exact.”
In its 2001 alert, NIOSH also noted the formation in 1997 of a task force involving OSHA, NIOSH and other federal and state agencies and military departments, working with industry to address tower safety. Gin pole safety was listed as among the priorities to be addressed.
Last year, 13 workers died while engaged in cell tower work, more than the previous two years combined. According to OSHA, most of these incidents involved falls and a lack of fall protection. Many have occurred when workers wearing harnesses were not properly anchored or tied off. Others were caused by falling objects, equipment failure and structural collapse of towers. Some of the collapses occurred because workers were not properly instructed in how to maintain the structural integrity of the towers while performing the required tasks.
“OSHA is aware that there has been acceleration in communication tower work during the past year due to cellular infrastructure upgrades, and the Agency is concerned about the possibility of future incidents, especially when the hazardous work is done by employees of subcontractors. It is imperative that the cell tower industry take steps immediately to address this pressing issue: no worker should risk death for a paycheck.
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. As a result, communication tower climbers are falling to their deaths.”
In December 2013, NATE released training guidelines for working on towers with gin poles. In February 2014, NATE launched a “100% Tie-off 24/7 Awareness Campaign” with an accompanying press release noting that “many of the tower-site accidents that compromise safety involve situations where the tower technician was not properly tied-off to the structure.” (NATE was not able to comment on the latest industry fatalities by press time.)
In an address to NATE on February 25, 2014, Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA David Michaels said, “We at OSHA are very concerned about this sharp rise. The fatality rate in your industry is extremely high – and tower workers have a risk of fatal injury perhaps 25 to 30 times higher than the risk for the average American worker. This is clearly unacceptable.”
As I noted when writing about this issue for The Pump Handle earlier this year, in 2013 OSHA’s records indicate at least 31 accidents – including 13 fatalities – and 267 violations in its 285 recorded inspections in the communications tower industry. In less than three months of 2014, there have been 6 fatalities and 26 violations in the 51 inspections in this industry OSHA records for this year so far, with investigations in the six fatal incidents not yet concluded.
Working at heights involves hazards that require special precautions and the demand and pace for cell tower work has been increasing. But looking back at the history, the lack of fall protection and equipment failures are clearly not new issues for this industry. The question would be why, with all the attention the issue has received from OSHA and NIOSH, more isn’t being done to make sure these catastrophes don’t continue – and what it would take for things to change.
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Ensia, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.