OSHA announces effort to reduce fatal falls from cellphone towers

Under pressure from the Communications Workers, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced an initiative on Oct. 14 to reduce the number of workers killed in fatal falls from cellphone transmission towers.

What's notable about the CWA lobbying on the issue is that it's another instance of unions sticking up for all workers, union and non-union.  

In a telephone interview, CWA Safety and Health Director Dave LeGrande pointed out that not only are the major cellphone firms non-union but that cellphone companies, to avoid CWA organizing drives, subcontract tower erection and maintenance to other firms.

That didn't stop LeGrande from constantly urging OSHA to protect the tower workers.  That included telling Occupational Safety and Health Administration Administrator Dr. David Michaels that the cellphone companies should be held jointly responsible, with their subcontractors, for worker safety – and that the cellphone firms should enforce it.

Through the end of September, 11 workers had died in falls off the tall towers, OSHA data shows, compared to 13 in all of last year, and two in 2012.  

 “The cellphones in our pockets can't come at the cost of a worker's life,” Labor Secretary Thomas Perez told the ceremony unveiling a government-industry partnership, including apprenticeship training, to prevent future falls.  “The cell tower industry might be small, with 10,000 to 15,000 workers, but it's quickly proving to be one of the most dangerous.  If we don't do something now, the number of fatalities is going to grow as fast as the industry does."

"We know we can't solve this problem alone,” so participation from the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates telecom firms, and major telecom companies like AT&T is essential, Perez added.  “It's a perfect example of federal agencies and industry breaking down barriers and identifying common goals to save workers' lives.”  Besides the training, OSHA will conduct public outreach and enforcement, said Michaels.

"The fatality rate in this industry is extraordinarily high.  Tower workers are more than 10 times as likely to be killed on the job as construction workers," the OSHA chief added.  "But these deaths are preventable.  OSHA developed a comprehensive initiative to ensure that safer working conditions and best practices are not just recommendations, but the law of the land.  We look forward to the help the FCC and industry can provide in making this a reality."

 “We helped initiate this meeting” and strongly believe workers and unions should be part of the partnership to solve the fall problem, LeGrande said. CWA advocated that cellphone firms “should adhere to the existing telecom tower standard that provides required training, equipment and procedures for the workers to follow,” though that standard is 40 years old.  

And “primary employers” – the cellphone firms – “must work with the subcontractors to provide safe and healthful conditions, and to ensure those conditions are carried out,” he said.