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The Federal Communications Commission’s planned auction of bandwidth from broadcast television to wireless carriers and the upcoming rollout of faster wireless internet access will increase workplace safety risks, according to an OSHA official.
Six communications towers workers have died in 2016, twice the number who died last year, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
“Communications towers has been a real challenge for us for the last couple of years,” Dean McKenzie, director of OSHA’s Directorate of Construction, told the Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health in Washington on Wednesday. “It’s a relatively small industry that we don’t have much opportunity to have an impact on. The work is often fairly short duration, and when it goes wrong, it goes wrong in a really big way.”
Twelve workers died in 2014, an increase tied to the 4G rollout, he said, referring to the mobile communication standard that allows wireless internet access at a much higher speed. He warned of potential deaths related to the 5G rollout — expected to occur in the United States in the 2018-2020 timeframe.
OSHA is working with the FCC and the National Association of Tower Erectors in Watertown, South Dakota, to address the increased risk, he said. The two agencies held joint workshops to discuss best practices in communications towers safety in October 2014 and February 2016.
“It’s been a great collaboration, and the attention that safety is getting in this industry — it’s refreshing to see them paying so much more attention on such a broad level compared to where it was three or four years ago,” Mr. McKenzie said.
Meanwhile, two new industry standards have been published by the American National Standards Institute in Washington to help protect workers by facilitating improved communication between engineers and contractors when planning and assessing tower construction.
“That’s a very, very detailed standard — it has a lot of engineering (components) that I believe will have a drastic effect on the types of fatalities we’ve been seeing for a long time,” said Steven Rank, executive director of safety and health for the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers in Washington and an employee representative on the advisory committee. “I think they have really come a long way, so I urge the agency to stick with NATE if you want to pursue rule-making on that and hopefully don’t deviate too much from the ANSI standard, because it looks pretty clean.”
OSHA and the FCC are hoping to hold a third joint workshop to address the increased workplace safety risk related to the FCC’s planned 2017 auction of bandwidth from broadcast television for sale to wireless carriers. Currently, broadcast television goes from channel 2 to channel 81, but bandwidth will be sold from channel 51 to channel 81 for wireless use, which will affect at least 1,100 communications towers as antennas would have to be removed and other work done within a 39-month period.
“There are only a handful of companies in the country that are really qualified and competent to do this caliber of work,” Mr. McKenzie said, adding that the practice of hoisting workers up these towers led to worker fatalities in the late 1990s and early 2000s when digital television was released. “When it’s done right, it’s OK. When it’s not done right, that’s when two or three or four or five are all killed at once.”
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration published its long-awaited slips, trips and falls rule on Thursday.