Cell tower worker deaths prompt federal regulators to scrutinize industry more closely

A surge in deaths among cell tower workers has prompted federal safety regulators to look more closely at the industry and track which companies various subcontractors were working for when accidents occurred.

david michaels osha


According to ProPublica, regulators at the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration will now be more systematically looking into the companies involved in accidents. OSHA is part of the Department of Labor.

OSHA thinks carriers and tower owners must take more responsibility for worker safety. "It's really incumbent on them that safety provisions are absolutely implemented," David Michaels, OSHA's director, said in an interview with ProPublica. "Safety can't just be pawned off on the final contractor."

Most carriers farm out work on towers to contractors and subcontractors, and often do not have their own workers at cell sites during climbs to replace antennas, cables and other network gear, making it difficult for OSHA to assess what role they play.

In 2013, according to OSHA, 13 workers in the tower industry were killed at communication tower worksites, which amounted to more worker deaths than in the previous two years combined. Four more workers were killed in the first weeks of 2014. Most workers die from falls. A tower collapse in West Virginia in February killed two tower workers, as well as a firefighter who died while responding to the incident, and two other tower workers were hospitalized.

In a letter sent to tower industry employers and state wireless associations in February, Michaels wrote that "every single one of these tragedies was preventable."

"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," he wrote. "It is imperative that the cell tower industry take steps immediately to address this pressing issue: no worker should risk death for a paycheck."

Michaels wrote in the letter that newly hired workers need  to be adequately trained and monitored to ensure safe working conditions, that tower workers need to have appropriate fall protection, and be trained to use such fall protection properly.

Michaels wrote that 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 a video message broadcast in late February at a conference for the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE), Michaels noted that "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."

In response, NATE has said it has been the industry leader in promoting tower climber safety, standards and education. NATE said its members have access to resources and guidelines that help a company establish a culture of safety.

Carriers have been racing to deploy LTE networks, which some workers say has contributed to safety lapses, with workers working 12- or 16-hour shifts. And Michaels is pushing to make sure there is more oversight and accountability of carriers in general. 

"I think it's profound that he (Michaels) wants to look at all entities from subcontractors to carriers and tower owners," Rob Medlock, who had specialized in tower safety during his 33 years at OSHA before retiring in 2010, told ProPublica. "That's been difficult for OSHA in the past."

For more:
- see this ProPublica article
- see this OSHA video
- see this OSHA page

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