It’s no secret that telecom employees who climb cell towers for a living have dangerous jobs, but so far, most of the concern has focused on fall risks. The reason for that is clear: in the past decade, more than 90 workers have lost their lives from deadly falls, sometimes from over 1,000 feet.
However, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) safety advocates are raising questions about another potential danger – exposure to radiofrequency radiation from communications tower antennas.
Radiofrequency, or RF, radiation comes from a variety of sources like broadcast antennas, portable radio systems, radar and cell phones.
Better safe than sorry
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, OSHA 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.
Employers rarely informed
“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. 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 Safety_Dept@ibew.org.