The Electrical Worker online
September 2015

Spotlight on Safety
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IBEW to OSHA: Investigate Potential Radiation Dangers

Telecom employees who climb cell towers for a living already take enough risks. In the past decade, more than 90 workers have lost their lives from deadly falls, sometimes from over 1,000 feet.

Now, IBEW safety advocates are raising questions about another potential challenge — exposure to radio frequency radiation from communications tower antennas.

Radio frequency, or RF, radiation comes from a variety of sources like broadcast antennas, portable radio systems, radar and cell phones.

Scientists are debating whether RF exposure poses any significant health challenges. But for telecom and construction workers who come in contact with RF antennas, it's better to be safe than sorry, said David Mullen, director of the IBEW's Safety and Health Department.

"It's an awareness thing," he said. "We want our members to know that RF is out there, and even though there haven't been official studies to determine what the long-term or short-term effects of exposure mean, workers need to be cognizant of any changes in their well-being that could be tied back to this."

In April, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration invited industry, labor groups and other stakeholders to comment on a range of pressing safety concerns, one of which was cell tower dangers.

While OSHA was initially concerned about fall fatalities, IBEW leaders took this as an opportunity to alert the agency to the ubiquity of RF radiation emitted from towers and to urge OSHA to implement safeguards.

"The IBEW represents a number of individuals who come into contact with RF hazards on a regular basis," International President Lonnie R. Stephenson wrote in a June 15 letter to the U.S. Department of Labor.

"In some cases, employers are rarely informed of the location of RF antennas and the potential hazards associated with exposure," Stephenson wrote. RF antennas are oftentimes close by but not recognizable because they are intentionally camouflaged with the landscape or hidden by building features. Therefore, the IBEW believes stronger RF monitoring and safety regulations are necessary to protect all workers, not just those employed in the telecommunications industry."

Stephenson also highlighted the growing number of RF monitors available on the market that could help identify high-level exposure areas.

With much of the science behind RF exposure still fuzzy, Mullen said that it remains in the best interest of industry and the membership to exercise caution.

"The best thing is just to educate our people," he said. "If it ends up being 'no harm, no foul,' that's fine — but if it is dangerous, we will have warned people early and will be in a better position to implement protections."

IBEW members who have questions or concerns related to RF exposure, or who have information to share, are encouraged to email Mullen at


IBEW pushes for safety review of the effects of radio frequency radiation from broadcast and cell phone antennas.

OSHA Issues Confined Spaces Rule

A new Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule on confined spaces in construction will affect anyone who works in spaces such as manholes, pipelines and tanks, just to name a few. It also adds new requirements to the safety training employers are required to provide their employees. The standard goes into effect Aug. 3, but will not be enforced until Oct. 2, due to a 60-day delay recently issued by OSHA.

OSHA defines a confined space as a space with limited or restricted means for entry or exit and is not designed for continuous occupancy.

The agency released the standard to regulate confined spaces in construction on May 1, but it has been in the works since 1994 when OSHA agreed to propose such a standard as part of a settlement agreement. What followed was a painstaking 21-year process that required national meetings among regulators, employers and workers to ensure worker safety.

OSHA estimates the new rule will prevent approximately five fatalities and 780 injuries per year.

"Before [the workers] were just being trained about the confined spaces; now they are aware of the present and potential hazards," said IBEW's Safety Department Director Dave Mullen.

To ensure their workers' safety, several requirements will have to be met by employers and their employees under the new rule:

Employers will be required to provide training for all employees performing duties in work permitted spaces. Additional training will be required as job duties change, permits change, or as an employee's performance shows deficiencies.

The rule says worksites should have trained personnel maintaining communication while a confined space is occupied. Verbal communication and signals such as pulling on ropes can be used between personnel and entrants.

Along with consistent communication, breathing apparatus will be required on site as well — one being worn in a confined space and another on standby with the trained personnel.

And for those workers who speak another language, the rule also requires employers to provide translations on possible hazards, Mullen said.


New training requirements will further protect workers' safety and health in workspaces not designed for continuous occupancy.