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OSHA Struggles When Tower Climbers Die

Posted on May 24, 2012
Collapse The Light (CC BY 2.0)

By Ryan Knutson, PBS Frontline, and Liz Day, ProPublica

(Page 4)

It’s “like the old game of Whac-a-Mole,” he said. “You can enforce your OSHA standards on that individual contractor and hit the mole. 2026 But there are a lot of other contractors that are going to pop up.”

In 2006 2013 when 19 tower climbers died, 10 of them working on cell sites 2013 OSHA tried a new approach to improve safety in the industry. It launched a partnership with the National Association of Tower Erectors, the trade group for tower companies, aimed at reducing injury and fatality rates and raising awareness of key worksite hazards. As part of the initiative, the agency offered discounts on regulatory fines and NATE members agreed to audit their own safety practices.

The early results looked promising: 85 NATE members joined in the first year, performing almost 600 self-audits and sending more than 1,000 workers for additional training.

“It was great,” said Gordon Lyman, a safety expert at WesTower, a large tower company, and a member of NATE’s OSHA relations committee. Jim Coleman, NATE’s chairman, said in a written response to questions from ProPublica and PBS “Frontline” that the partnership helped change the industry’s relationship with OSHA from adversarial to collaborative.

But there was a sticking point between the agency and the group, correspondence and email obtained under the Freedom of Information Act shows.

NATE leaders wanted cell carriers, tower owners and general contractors to participate in the initiative. In a Dec. 20, 2006 e-mail to OSHA, Patrick Howey, then the executive director of NATE, said companies that hired subcontractors with poor safety records were “a major source of accidents.”

It’s unclear if OSHA or NATE formally invited the major cell companies to participate in the safety partnership, but they were welcome to join. None did. In its statement, AT&T said it strongly supported the partnership, which the carrier credited with “a dramatic improvement in worker safety,” but declined to say why it did not participate. T-Mobile did not respond to questions about the partnership. In an email, a Verizon spokesman said the company had no record of being invited to join. A statement from Sprint said the company did not participate because “we are not in the business of erecting towers.”

Rob Medlock, OSHA’s Cleveland area office director and an agency point man for the NATE partnership, said carriers had little incentive to get involved as they were already outside of regulators’ reach.

“It puts you in the ballgame, where right now you’re outside the park,” said Medlock, who left OSHA in 2010.

As cell companies raced to expand their networks in 2008, 12 climbers died, eight of them on cell towers. Three worked for companies enrolled in the OSHA-NATE safety initiative. The relationship between OSHA and NATE began to sour.

In a September 2008 conference call, OSHA officials told NATE leaders that the group needed to “step up” by hiring a safety specialist, conducting its own accident investigations and creating an accident database, agency meeting minutes show.

Howey fired back in a Dec. 4, 2008 memo, arguing that it was OSHA and the companies on top of the contracting chain who needed to step up.

Carriers and others who demand “unrealistic scheduling” or hire unsafe contractors are “one of the biggest factors in tower site fatalities and must be addressed,” Howey wrote. “OSHA needs to find a way to deal with these companies or accept that fatalities are going to continue.”

Medlock agreed, but knew OSHA didn’t have the muscle to follow through. “My thought was, 2018I wish we could,’” he said.

The partnership dissolved in November 2009.

* * *

There’s much debate among federal regulators and industry experts on how OSHA should enforce safety standards more effectively in industries like tower climbing, which rely heavily on subcontracting.

Some, including several former OSHA officials, say Congress needs to change the law that created the agency more than 40 years ago to expand the definition of “employer” to include companies that contract out work.

“We have laws that are structured in a way that no longer look like the workplaces that they’re trying to regulate,” said Weil, the economics professor.

Medlock and others said OSHA could create rules to achieve the same goal administratively.

John Henshaw, OSHA’s administrator from 2001 to 2004, said any attempt to broaden the agency’s authority would face stiff opposition from businesses, whose challenges could clog up the court system. Instead, he suggested that simply making it known which accidents are connected to which cell carrier would encourage companies to ensure that subcontractors address safety problems.

“The American public can put pressure on those cell carriers, and ultimately only do business with the ones who are doing it the right way,” he said.


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