Michigan Considering Tower Safety Rule; North Carolina Proposal Under Legal Review

Date: Jul 03, 2002

Two states are considering the creation of standards to govern worker safety on telecommunication towers, state officials recently told BNA.

North Carolina Department of Labor's proposed standard, which has been in the works for two years, is undergoing legal review, and public hearings will likely be held in the fall, said John Hoomani, deputy general counsel for the state's Department of Labor, July 1. The department would like to submit the rule to the state's Rules Review Commission in early 2003, he said.

Michigan is just beginning the process to regulate tower construction. The state will propose to its construction standards commission that a rule be developed, Rick Mee, chief of the construction safety division in the Michigan Department of Consumer and Industry Services, told BNA June 28. The proposal will likely be heard by the appointed commission in the fall, he said.

In addition, three Midwestern states that operate their own worker safety agencies--Indiana, Minnesota, and Michigan--recently joined a regional Occupational Safety and Health Administration partnership on telecommunication tower safety, Mike Conners, regional administrator for OSHA in Chicago, said July 1.

Michigan Initiative

In Michigan, state officials first became concerned about the safety of communication tower workers about five years ago when there were a number of fatalities and injuries, according to Mee.

The state granted an experimental variance to one company to investigate whether workers should be hoisted on towers or be required to climb, he said. A federal OSHA compliance directive issued in April that allows workers to "ride the line" was based on the results of that effort, Mee said. The OSHA directive removed a restriction that prevented workers from being hoisted to work stations above 200 feet when building a tower.

While some companies have invested in safer equipment and are training their workers, other employers are not, Mee said. Because communication towers are built in a matter of days, it is difficult for safety officials to monitor whether workers are being protected.

Changes in the way towers are built have made their construction somewhat safer in recent years, Mee said.

Rather than building a tower in sections with workers suspended alongside it, more builders are using monopoles. These require a substantial foundation, but can be assembled on the ground and lifted into place with a crane, Mee said.

Despite the changes in technique, "the tower erection industry we still see as problematical," Mee said.

According to Mee, creating a state standard on tower erection also will fill a regulatory void that will be created by the state's adoption of the new federal steel erection standard. Like other state plans, Michigan is required to adopt the steel standard, which includes a provision saying it cannot be applied to tower erection. Thus, a state, like Michigan, that had relied on the previous steel erection standard for enforcing safety provisions on towers, will no longer be able to do so, Mee said.

Conners, of federal OSHA, noted that general fall protection requirements and the general duty clause can be used when hazards are found during tower inspections.

North Carolina Rule

North Carolina has been pursuing a tower standard since eight worker deaths on towers occurred in the state in a period of three years. The deaths included a triple fatality in which the workers fell 1,200 feet.

The most substantial change made from the initial rule proposal, as it was developed by stakeholder working groups, was removing efforts to hold owners liable for injuries. The department has jurisdiction over employers, but not over property owners, Hoomani said.

The proposal currently calls for workers who climb communication towers to be "tied-off" to a safety system at all times and that fall protection must be provided above six feet. Also, all new towers would have to provide "a safe climbing device" and existing towers in the state would need to be retrofitted to provide a safe way for workers to access the tower.

The section regarding retrofitting existing towers remains controversial and could be eliminated before the proposal becomes a regulation, Ivette Mercado-Bijkersma, safety standards officer for the North Carolina Department of Labor, said July 1.

"The rule should be taken to the Labor Commissioner in the next 2-3 weeks so that within the month we'll have a rule that is going to be filed for a notice of text," said Mercado-Bijkersma. The next step will be public hearings and then the Rules Review Commission, she said.

Regional Partnership

A federal OSHA and state plans partnership signed in November 2001 with the National Association of Tower Erectors has not been implemented in the field yet, Rob Medlock said July 1. Medlock works in OSHA's Cleveland area office and is coordinator for the effort.

At the end of June, 25 companies had submitted applications for the partnership, Medlock said. Once OSHA checks the company safety records, employers will be accepted into the partnership and receive only focused inspections in exchange for meeting the conditions of the partnership agreement, Medlock said.

Under the agreement, partner companies are required to have a trained or "competent' person on site at all times. Also, participating companies must have an OSHA-approved safety and health program and provide 10 hours of training to all field employees and 30 hours of training to all field supervisors.

Conners, of the Chicago regional office, said the state plans and federal OSHA are already sharing expertise and training for compliance officers.

Also, the partnership has put compliance officers on heightened alert about the dangers of tower erection. However, he said, "We still haven't solved the problem of finding out where the towers are going up," Conners said.

OSHA and state plans are looking for a way to reach the owners of communication towers and convince them to include safety provisions in their job bids when they are having towers built or maintained, he said.

Mee, the Michigan state official, said that tower erectors who will participate in the partnership tend to be companies that already are working safely. As a result, "we're kind of preaching to the choir," he said.

Nonetheless, the partnership will allow Michigan compliance officers to focus their resources on other tower companies, Mee said.

By Joyce Hedges

Copyright © 2002 by The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., Washington D.C.

Reproduced with permission from BNA Occupational Safety & Health Daily, "Michigan Considering Tower Safety Rule; North Carolina Proposal Under Legal Review" (July 3, 2002). Copyright 2002 by The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. (800-372-1033). http://www.bna.com.