09.22.2010 12:25 PM
Broadcast Tower Repairman’s Free Climb Captured on Video
CYBERSPACE: (A new video link follows the story.) A seven-minute video of free-climbing tower technicians has the broadcast engineering community abuzz. Entitled “Stairway to Heaven,” it’s meant to illustrate a workday in the life of a tower technician equipped with a helmetcam. Instead, what generated the most attention was the fact that the shooter was free climbing.

“It starts with an elevator ride to about 1,600 feet. After that, it’s all about climbing,” the narrator intones while the technician ascends a ladder within the structure. “Once you reach the top of the tower, it’s time to go outside.”

At that point, the technician is shown climbing hand-over-hand up the side of the antenna on small metal rods.

“This is called free climbing, meaning no safety lines are used,” the narrator says. “It’s easier, faster, and most tower workers climb this way…. Free climbing is dangerous, of course, but OSHA rules do allow for it. Attaching, climbing, attaching and removing safety lines every few feet slows progress and is tiring.”

The climber eventually secures safety lines near the top of the tower.

The video originated on
TheOnlineEngineer.org, a new Web site aimed at the community created by Russell Brown. It was soon viral on YouTube, according to Wireless Estimator, which focuses on tower news, information and safety. Jim Coleman, chairman of the National Association of Tower Erectors, told WE he was “unaware of any guidance by OSHA that allows for free climbing as an acceptable method of accessing elevated work.”

Brown removed the video from
TheOnlineEngineer and YouTube, but it’s available elsewhere. Neither the climbers nor the tower are identified.

“The footage of the climb came from a friend of mine that does this type of work, I have know him for several years and he has helped me many times in the past,” Brown wrote at
TheOnlineEngineer. “Recently he gave me this video he shot on one of his jobs. I showed him the edited video and he approved it, but not the audio, as it was added later, and I put it up on TheOnLineEngineer and YouTube over the weekend. On Monday, he was getting calls from colleagues telling him that they were concerned about what the video showed. His world is a very small one, and you don’t want to bite the hand that feeds you! Some facility owners are concerned about liability and such and may second thoughts about him if they think he does not take safety seriously.”

Brown said he’d had two offers to broadcast the video and a request to submit it to a film festival in France.

“As soon as we can, we will have more videos about tower climbing, but in a totally safe way, being tied off all the time,” he said.

While most tower workers may indeed free climb, as the video asserts,
Wireless Estimator makes no bones about the danger. Beneath a shot of a technician climbing untethered in upstate New York, WE writes, “Smile for the camera since you will not be able to for your morgue photo.” The photo was taken by a retired technician who was “concerned about the number of people that do not tie off.” WE also features a “Tower Climbers Hall of Shame” featuring video of free climbers.

reports seven fatalities related to falls from towers so far this year, compared to five for all of last year--the fewest since 2003. That year, 13 people died while working on communications towers, three of them in Huntsville, Ala. Mohammad Ayub of OSHA said at the time that shortcuts often led to fatalities. (See “Towers of Power.)

The highest number of fatalities occurred in 2006, when 18 people died in tower incidents. Among them were Leo Deters, a 57-year-old industry veteran from Norwalk, Iowa. Deters and two crew members, 27-year-old Jason Galles of Des Moines and 19-year-old Jon McWilliams of Cumming, Iowa, died while riding a headache ball up a 1,500-foot tower.

“I know he’s been on every tower we have,” said Bill Hayes of Iowa Public Television of Deters soon after the incident. “He’s probably been on every tower in Iowa and the surrounding states. These guys are tremendously safe. This is not a cowboy operation. These guys are good... inherently, it’s a dangerous job because if you make a mistake, there aren’t any small ones. Leo didn’t take any unnecessary risks or do anything unsafe.”

The video of the helmetcam-captured free climb is below. The embedded video was removed per a DCMA takedown request from Brown. A version is now available at Live Leak.
-- Deborah D. McAdams

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Posted by: Deborah McAdams
Fri, 10-15-2010 09:35 PM Report Comment
I am a Ham Radio enthusiast and I have a 170 foot tower out behind the house, which I climb often. I would LOVE to have the chance to climb one of the REAL broadcast towers like the one in that video!!
Posted by: Deborah McAdams
Mon, 10-18-2010 12:29 PM Report Comment
The job of the climber is complicated by the lack of pre-engineered fall protection on the tower. "Add-on" fall protection such as provided by lanyards and hardnesses are clunky and very slow. It's only natural climbers will want to get up, get the work done, and get back down as fast as possible. It's also only natural the company that paid for building the tower will want to eliminate any extra costs, such as non-mandatory fall protection features built into the tower. Some of these free-climbers will tie off once they get to the specific stationary work area. The problem with that approach is the climber is unprotected during the most dangerous part of the climb. If the climber were to slip, a rung were to break off, or the climber were to suffer a medical condition, it would lead to a fall. However, the existing fall protection measures are cumbersome and slow down climbing so much, it's no surprise climbers are willing to take their chances without them. OSHA needs to get a little tougher with the companies building these towers to promote safer, easier to climb towers.
Posted by: Deborah McAdams
Thu, 09-30-2010 12:16 PM Report Comment
I am a safety professional and feel that in some cases it best to free climb. The worker was using fall protection as he ascended the tower and finally tied off once in position.
Posted by: Deborah McAdams
Wed, 09-22-2010 03:48 PM Report Comment
This is a news story? I've free-climbed broadcast towers before for exactly the same reasons as the climber in the video. When it was windy and/or it was congested with transmission lines/coax I'd tie off and navigate as safely as I could. No one wants to fall and following OSHA rules to the letter are still no guarantee of "safety." Only the people that have never climbed anything taller than a step-ladder in the kitchen would be shocked by this. In other news, the Sun is hot and rain is wet.
Posted by: Deborah McAdams
Wed, 09-22-2010 03:51 PM Report Comment
Thank you for mocking by...
Posted by: Deborah McAdams
Wed, 09-22-2010 11:06 PM Report Comment
Amazing stuff to see for the 99.9999999% of the population that can only imagine being up on top of such a structure. Thanks for posting it here Deb!
Posted by: Deborah McAdams
Mon, 01-10-2011 09:25 AM Report Comment
"I am a safety professional and feel that in some cases it best to free climb. The worker was using fall protection as he ascended the tower and finally tied off once in position." I'm a safety director. Please send me your contact information so that I know who you are. That way I can be sure never to hire you.
Posted by: Deborah McAdams
Tue, 01-11-2011 06:08 PM Report Comment
Holy crap! I feel sick after watching the video. I can not believe that these guys "free climb" the tower... especially when they are standing on the very top and not even holding on. Wow

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