OSHA and Tower Climbers – Who Should Hold Blame?

OSHA and Tower Climbers - Who Should Hold Blame?

Tower climbing has been named the number one most dangerous job in America .  The annual death rate of tower workers is more than ten times that of construction workers.  There are about 10,000 of these guys working on our cell and other tall towers, and they’re dying at an alarming rate.

OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) finally caught wind of this development and began to try to take action to alleviate the situation in 2014.  What they found was that the workers who build these towers for larger companies, such as AT&T and Verizon, were hired through subcontractors rather than directly.  There was no way to file a lawsuit with the corporation itself. But where does the fault really lie in the end? On the contractor that was furthest down the chain of other subcontractors?

The issue here may be a lack of intimacy and understanding of the situation.  Jordan Barab, OSHA’s deputy administrator, reported that they had, “had a number of situations where [they thought] that accidents were caused by companies trying to meet deadlines and…cutting corners on safety in order to meet those deadlines”.

The company originally responsible for requesting the job can only be held accountable if they were shown to be exercising direct control over the contractors, or that they were aware of unsafe conditions.  Generally, it’s not attempted by OSHA to hold cell carriers and other companies who use high towers responsible for the death and unsafe working conditions of those workers.  That practice was tried once and failed after a three year legal battle.

With the responsibility sprawled out in such a large web, what is the answer for finding someone to hold personally responsible for ensuring workers take necessary precautions? In one case in Kentucky, OSHA arrived at a cell tower to find the body of a 22-year-old man, Michael Sulfridge, dead on the ground. All the workers acknowledge that neither he nor anyone else there were using protection gear. The protection gear stayed in the truck, and the workers claimed it was free practice.

Though almost two dozen deaths have been reported between Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T and Sprint, they have never been charged by OSHA.  Many argue that, as you go down the line of subcontractors, it’s difficult to hold the CEO of such-and-such company responsible when they had practiced no direct action.  The top administrator of OSHA from 1997 to 2001, Charles Jeffress, claimed this in saying, “you can’t sit in an office building thousands of miles away and direct the work”.

Perhaps the whole practice of subcontracting is the issue in the first place. Subcontracting is a way for companies to cut costs, reduce union requirements, reduce responsibility and generally make things easier at the top.  These cost cuts are, in practice, cutting the safety of the American people.

Though OSHA did attempt to look into the increasing dangers of the tower climbing industry, it seems there is little they can do to hold anyone accountable for what has already happened. So are there any regulations OSHA is putting in place to force employers to go by in order to ensure safer working conditions?

According to the osha.gov website, there are a number of rules they must go by. Workers are required to be fully trained and monitored as they perform their first jobs, so as to know without a doubt they they are fully equipped and educated to perform the job safely.
In addition, employers are required to provide a means of fall protection. OSHA states that they discovered a high percentage of the deaths were due to a lack of proper protection if workers are to fall.

OSHA also states it will begin monitoring and inspecting workers throughout the construction chain, not just the cell tower workers themselves. This means OSHA will be able to see how oversight issues are handled and can advise or give out citations.

Finally, OSHA requires that the choosing of contractors must include safety criteria and close oversight of further subcontracting. This puts more responsibility on the original buyers of the service.
For now, we can just hope that these new regulations and requirements will help bring more safety to this trade. The people who build and maintain our cell towers are vital to our modern society, and they should not be slighted by having their safety compromised and no one ultimately responsible.