FCC's Clyburn pushes for additional tower safety steps

HOLLYWOOD, Fla.--FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn urged the wireless industry to adopt additional safety provisions she said might prevent injury and death among tower climbers.

Specifically, she said the wireless industry should adopt a "sign before you climb" protocol to warn tower climbers of potentially dangerous conditions on each job they begin. She said tower climbers should have to sign a precautionary safety contract every time they agree to climb a communications tower. Clyburn also said that safety provisions should be included in the network construction contracts that wireless carriers ink with third-party network construction companies.

Clyburn said the FCC's goal is to ensure "100 percent safety" among tower climbers.

Clyburn made her recommendations during a keynote speech here at the Wireless Infrastructure Show, held by PCIA, the trade group that in part represents the network construction industry.

In comments after her speech, Clyburn said that her suggestions about tower safety were intended to spur the wireless industry to act on its own to ensure tower climber safety, without the FCC having to create additional regulations on the topic.

Tower climber safety has been a perennial topic among network construction companies and regulators, due to the dangerous nature of the work. Indeed, Clyburn mentioned two tower climber deaths in her home state of South Carolina in the years before she became an FCC commissioner.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety & Health Administration, there were 13 communication tower-related fatalities in 2014. In the first half of 2014, however, there were nine fatalities at communication tower worksites, the agency said. That's an increase from the six deaths recorded in 2011 and the two reported in 2012. OSHA said last year there were roughly 10,000 to 15,000 workers in the tower construction industry, and that they faced a risk of a fatal injury up to 30 times higher than the risk for the average American worker.

The increase in fatalities in 2013 and 2014 "represents a significant increase in fatalities and injuries from previous years, and OSHA is concerned at this trend. OSHA is working with industry stakeholders to identify the causes of these injuries and fatalities, and to reduce the risks faced by employees in the communication tower industry," the organization said on its website.

Specifically, last year OSHA said it updated its "Communications Tower directive" regarding the use of hoist systems used to move workers to and from workstations on communication towers. The agency also held a workshop last year with the FCC, AT&T (NYSE: T) and the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE) to address tower climber safety.

 For its part, NATE said it is currently working on a nationwide worker certification program that it said will improve the safety situation for tower climbers and other communication industry workers. Todd Schlekeway, NATE's executive director, said the group has created the National Wireless Safety Alliance with participation from wireless carriers, network installation companies and others. He said the National Wireless Safety Alliance is currently finalizing training standards for a certification program for tower climbers, and expects to begin issuing certifications starting next year. He said the group would also create certifications for other types of workers, such as foremen.

Schlekeway said currently there is no nationwide certification program, and each company issues its own certification based on its own parameters.

As for Clyburn's speech, Schlekeway said that "it's great that they're giving visibility to our issues." He said that certifications from the National Wireless Safety Alliance will be included in the contracts between wireless carriers and third-party construction companies. As for Clyburn's "sign before you climb" proposal, he said NATE would have to learn more about it before it could decide whether to support it.

The nation's wireless carriers have been racing to deploy LTE networks, resulting in pressure on the companies charged with doing the actual physical work.

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Updated April 29 at 1:30 p.m. EST to include comments from NATE.