Recently a worker on a Sprint communication tower in North Carolina fell about 200 feet to his death after unsuccessfully trying to attach his safety harness to the tower. The same month, in Oregon, a worker at a Sprint tower was critically injured when the aerial lift he was in tipped over. A few months after that, a man working on a Sprint cell network installed on a water tower in Maryland fell 180 feet and died.
Sadly, those incidents were not isolated but part of a larger pattern of accidents affecting communication tower workers. In 2008, after 18 tower workers were killed in accidents, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration called this industry the most dangerous in the United States, because it had the highest rate of accidents. The industry is small, with only about 10,000 workers. The rate dropped the following year but spiked again in 2013 as cell phone service providers pushed hard to upgrade their networks faster than the competition. Sprint, for example, has been engaged in an ambitious program to upgrade all of its 38,000 towers. Of the 19 fatal accidents reported to OSHA, 17 involved towers for mobile-phone networks; four of these involved Sprint sites.
OSHA responded by investigating the accidents and trying to change what it considers an ineffective approach to safety in the industry. The agency announced that as it studies accident data, it will identify which mobile networks were involved, regardless of whether the workers were employees or contractors. OSHA is concerned that because carriers usually line up contractors to work on their towers, company management is not invested enough in the workers’ safety. The agency sent all businesses in the industry a letter indicating they could be held accountable if they do not insist in their contracts that workers follow safe procedures. It also directed businesses to consider safety criteria in choosing contractors. In addition, OSHA assigned its employees to inspect all worksites they encounter involving communication towers, because tower work is too short-term for problems to be caught with random inspections.
Initial reports suggest that what pushed aside concern for safety was the industry’s ambitious drive to improve networks. Workers reportedly have been on the job for 12 to 16 hours at a time, rarely taking a day off to rest. Employees acknowledge that they are responsible for following safety rules, but some point out the difficulty of taking all precautions while under pressure to work fast. Investigators have found evidence of poor safety training, improper equipment, and intense time pressure. OSHA inspections reveal that workers often are not properly protected from falling. The National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE), a trade association, shares OSHA’s concern. NATE has developed safety guidelines and checklists, which it encourages its members to use as part of creating a culture of safety. One NATE member, U.S. Cellular, has been requiring that all tower contractors be members of NATE, as a way to ensure they are well qualified to operate safely.
Sprint insists that safety is a top priority. The company says it requires contractors to have a written safety program and put someone in charge of safety at each work site. Sprint has stepped up its efforts to ensure that workers, even those employed by contractors, are safe. The company hired PICS Auditing to review its contractors’ safety performance, including accident rates, training programs, and the content of their safety manuals.
What responsibility do you think Sprint has to the employees of subcontractors working on its communication towers? How well is it meeting that responsibility?
Beyond the steps Sprint says it has taken, what else could it do to meet or exceed OSHA requirements to protect worker safety at its communication towers?