NIOSH logo and tagline

Fatal Falls of Contractor, Teen Workers Highlight Safety Concerns in Telecommunication Tower Work

NIOSH Update:

Contact: Fred Blosser (202) 260-8519
April 27, 2000

The deaths of a contractor, his 16-year-old stepson, and a 19-year-old employee highlight the serious risk of fatal falls for workers who construct and maintain telecommunication towers in the rapidly growing cellular and wireless communications industry, a report from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) finds.

Available data suggest that workers in those tasks sustain fatal occupational injuries, mostly from falls, at a substantially greater rate than employees in all U.S. industry. Because the industry has grown rapidly to meet increasing demand for additional towers, many new employers, supervisors, and workers may be unaware of the injury risk and unfamiliar with safety requirements.

“The cost of a phone call should not be a worker’s life,” said NIOSH Director Linda Rosenstock, M.D., M.P.H. “With industry, labor, and other partners, we in NIOSH are reaching out to employers and workers in this burgeoning industry. We are striving to make them aware of the significant risk of fatal falls and to provide them with information for preventing these tragedies.”

In the case reported by NIOSH, the contractor and the two teenaged workers riding a hoist line up the side of a tower plunged 1,200 feet when the hoist line slipped. The contractor’s wife, the 16-year-old’s mother, was operating the hoist and attempted unsuccessfully to hold the line when it slipped.

The NIOSH report examines the circumstances of the fatal incident and includes recommendations for preventing similar fatalities in the future. This report is the latest of eight NIOSH reports based on investigations of fatalities in the telecommunication tower industry. Tower manufacturers, tower owners, employers, and workers all have important roles in preventing deaths and injuries.

NIOSH’s recommendations from the eight fatality investigations include these:

  • Employers should comply with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Compliance Directive 2-1.29, which describes safe practices in tower access and egress, the proper use of hoists and training of hoist operators, and the use of proper fall protection equipment. Employers should ensure that workers follow these practices.
  • Employers should ensure that tower erectors are adequately trained in proper climbing techniques.
  • When employees are working 25 feet or more above the ground or a working surface, employers should provide and ensure the use of 100 percent fall protection. This applies to ascent, descent, moving from point to point, or any other work activity at those heights.
  • Employers should provide workers with an adequate “work-positioning device system” rigged to allow a worker to be supported on an elevated vertical surface while working with both hands free. Connectors on these systems must be compatible with the tower components to which they are attached.
  • Employers should ensure that gin poles are installed and used according to the specifications of the manufacturer or a professional engineer. Unique to the telecommunication tower industry, a gin pole is a component of a temporary lifting system used to raise workers, equipment, or successive sections of tower into place.
  • Employers should know and comply with child labor laws, which prohibit hazardous work by young people under 18, including work in any occupations involved in the operation of power-driven hoisting equipment.
  • Tower owners should ensure that OSHA safety measures, including provisions of Compliance Directive 2-1.29, are followed.
  • Manufacturers and tower owners should consider installing fixtures on tower components during fabrication or erection that would facilitate the use of fall protection systems.

Estimates of risk for fatal injuries among telecommunications tower workers range from 49 injury-related deaths per 100,000 employees to 468 deaths per 100,000, compared with about 5 deaths per 100,000 in all U.S. industry. These estimates rates vary because of difficulty in identifying the numbers of workers involved in the construction and maintenance of telecommunication towers. These workers are categorized in multiple industries and occupations among other workers who do other types of work. An estimated 95 workers died from falls and other injuries related to tower construction and maintenance from 1992 to 1997.

Since 1996, when about 50,000 telecommunication towers existed, increasing demand for towers has resulted in the construction of 20,000 to 50,000 new towers each year.

Copies of reports from the eight investigations are available from the NIOSH Division of Safety Research in Morgantown, WV (304-285-5916). Further information about NIOSH research is available from the NIOSH toll-free information number, 1-800-35-NIOSH (1-800-356-4674) .