An article from last month’s Risk Management Magazine discussed how OSHA has begun to pay more careful attention to the working conditions for cell tower workers as the major wireless carriers prepare for a massive building spree. The article noted that a race between providers to expand coverage, especially fast 4G and LTE service, has led to a worrying rise in worker deaths.
Numbers show that ten workers in the cell tower industry have died so far this year. The workers all died in falls from communication or cell towers. Beyond these ten deaths, another three workers suffered critical injuries in falls. An alarming cluster of four deaths back in August attracted the attention of OHSA officials who say they are considering drafting new safety regulations for those operating in the industry.
Based solely upon the number, ten deaths may not sound particularly scary. However, the number is deceptively small. To really understand those ten deaths, you must put them in context with the overall small size of the communication tower industry, which numbers less than 10,000 workers. Given this small size, surveys conducted by OSHA place the communication tower industry among the deadliest fields in which to work. In fact, only a few years ago, OSHA issued a press release saying that according to 2008 workplace accident figures, cell tower climbing ranked as the single most dangerous job in the country, outpacing notoriously deadly commercial fishing and coal mining.
Industry experts have said that the recent increase in worker deaths is likely due to a race between the biggest wireless carriers to upgrade and expand their networks. Specifically, Sprint and T-Mobile have launched huge initiatives and promised to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to better compete with the industry heavyweights, AT&T and Verizon. Sprint has said that its expansion into LTE service will require work on every one of its nearly 40,000 cell towers over the next few years.
In response to the industry building boom, OSHA has said that it will be carefully watching for accidents and injuries to workers responsible for doing the heavy lifting. Specifically, OSHA has revealed that it is concerned about the role tight deadlines imposed by the wireless carriers might play in leading to unsafe working conditions. This announcement alarmed many in the industry who had gotten used to watching the carriers avoid liability for accidents due to the widespread use of contractors.
Even though the wireless companies may not directly employ the injured workers, OSHA says that overly tight deadlines might still be the cause of some accidents. With workers frequently putting in 12 or even 16-hour shifts, many believe that potentially fatal mistakes are all but guaranteed. Whether OSHA is able to rein in the industry remains to be seen, but it’s something that will be closely watched by company officials and workers alike.