Worker safety near radio transmitters
An understanding of RF hazards and associated safe work practices is essential for anyone who works on or near radio transmitters.
The radio connections upon which we rely for safety and security, business and personal communications and entertainment, are most effectively delivered to devices from a significant height above the surrounding area. This means that towers and rooftops, power poles and other existing buildings and structures are the best locations for transmitters and antennas.
Radio waves used to carry digital information to and from a mobile device do so at low power levels that improve the efficiency of data transmission by reducing radio interference. Transmitters are located in the environment to provide the required communications to a specific coverage area. As a result, workers in many occupations may encounter radio transmission antennas in their work at heights, either at a transmitter site or adjacent to it, including:
- Building maintenance — window cleaning, signage, rigging
- Mechanical maintenance — heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems
- Construction work — cranes, scaffolding and rigging
- Tree maintenance
- Energy network maintenance — eg, powerlines
- Street lighting and traffic sign maintenance
- Emergency services attending incidents such as fires and storm damage.
Safe work standards
Safe work near any hazard is typically defined by three key pillars of control:
- Safety standards set the limits for exposure
- Workplace legislation sets the management requirements
- Employers ensure workers are aware and equipped to manage work near these hazards.
The International Commission for Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) has developed guidelines for protection of people from exposure to radio frequency (RF) radiation. The Australian regulator, ARPANSA, mirrors the ICNIRP guideline in its Radiation Protection Series Standard, RPS 3, which sets out safe exposure levels for all radio services in Australia. Generally, the levels of exposure on the ground from most radio services are many thousands of times below the human exposure limits set by the RPS 3 standard. However, these human exposure limits can be encountered by workers when they are close to the radiating antennas usually within 50 metres directly in front of the antenna.
ICNIRP has recently updated the guideline to provide clearer guidance on the practical application of exposure limits and the inclusion of 5G technology in higher frequency ranges. ARPANSA is undertaking a review of these changes and will include the ICNIRP improvements in its updated RPS 3 standard later in 2020.
Work health and safety legislation
The federal and state work health safety (WHS) Acts require an employer to actively manage all hazards in the employee’s work spaces, and this includes RF radiation for workers at height. In order for this to be achieved, it is very important that there is a strong awareness of radio sources and how to work near them.
Employers are responsible for identifying all hazards that may affect a worker’s activity and for putting controls in place to eliminate or manage risks through the documentation and implementation of safe work methods.
How do I keep myself and my workers safe?
The typical WHS hierarchy of controls prioritises the elimination of hazards. This can be most effectively achieved by identifying the areas that should not be accessed, known as the ‘RF Hazard boundary’. The common ways to achieve this are through awareness and familiarity with the types of radio antennas that are commonly used and the ways to identify the owner and operator of that service.
As with any workplace hazard, planning is key in defining hazards and developing Safe Work Methods Statements (SWMS) for workers to follow. The key elements of workplace hazard planning are:
- Risk assessment and awareness
- Personal protection equipment
At the time of writing it is noted that a number of state-based safety agencies did not have specific statements on safe work with RF radiation. However, SafeWork NSW has recognised that the WHS Acts are silent on this specific hazard and is considering the addition of some information to its hazard library.
Radiofrequency awareness training is available from a number of registered training organisations, and many of these courses are available online. The mobile telecommunications industry recognises courses that are accredited by the Australian Centre for Electromagnetic Bioeffects Research (ACEBR) to ensure that workers are equipped with sufficient knowledge to keep themselves safe. While this accreditation is not mandatory for all workers, it is advisable to seek some independent advice on the training available.
Identification of the antenna owner
WHS legislation requires that businesses must do everything that is reasonable and practical to ensure the health and safety of workers and others. Businesses and employers must prioritise the elimination of any health and safety risks in the workplace so far as is ‘reasonably practicable’.
Key to this requirement is the identification of antennas in close proximity to a workplace.
Mobile base station sites
The Mobile Carriers Forum (MCF), a division of the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA), has developed the AMTA-branded ‘RF Safety Program’ to undertake compliance and safety assessments of all mobile phone base station installations nationally. The program uses a national database for site details, settings and site safety documentation. The AMTA RFNSA database is a great place to start if you need to determine whether there is a mobile base station near your work area. It is available via the MobileSiteSafety.com.au website and mobile app, and shows you on a map where the sites are and who to contact for assistance with access to or near the site.
The facility manager of the base station site should be able to provide you with a copy of the EME Guide, which includes Safe Work information and drawings showing the extent of the controlled hazard areas around the site. The carriers that use the site are also contactable for assistance.
Other radio transmitters
Many towers and buildings host a number of radio services along with mobile base stations and the carriers will include these services in the EME Guide where information is made available. If the antennas are not in an EME Guide for the site or are not shown in MobileSiteSafety app, then the ACMA Register of Radio Licences (RRL) can be used to assist in identifying the services present at a site. The ACMA RRL database can be searched by street address and all registered licences can be identified on an interactive map (see https://web.acma.gov.au/rrl/register_search.main_page).
The key to avoiding exposure when working near an RF hazard is an understanding of the steps involved for development of a Safe Work Method Statement. AMTA has recognised that this may be daunting to many employers and workers and has developed the RadioWorkSafe App to assist employers and workers.
RadioWorkSafe is AMTA’s flagship RF safety educational initiative, providing the basic safety steps for working on base stations, buildings and other facilities with radio transmitting antennas. RadioWorkSafe also provides a simple approach to RF safety education.
The features available to all workers free of charge through RadioWorkSafe.com.au include:
- Basic safety steps
- A Safe Work checklist
- Training videos
- Fact sheets
- Information resources
- Site contacts
- Safety bookmark
Personal RF monitors
Personal RF monitors are available for workers who regularly need to need to approach RF exclusion zones. As these devices can cost up to $3000 per unit and require calibration at two-year intervals, they are highly specialised equipment and not recommended for occasional work near RF sources.
What about 5G?
5G networks are designed to work in conjunction with 4G networks using a range of macro cells, small cells and dedicated in-building systems. Small cells will be a feature of 5G networks and will evolve to include the use of millimetre-wave frequencies. Small cells are mini base stations designed for very localised coverage, typically from 10 metres to a few hundred metres and providing in-fill for the larger macro network. Small cells will be essential for the 5G networks.
Is 5G safe? This is an important question. In January 2020, Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Brendan Murphy, issued the following statement to reassure Australians:
I’d like to reassure the community that 5G technology is safe. There is no evidence telecommunication technologies, such as 5G, cause adverse health impacts. This position is supported by health authorities in Australia — such as the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) — and around the world, such as the World Health Organization (WHO).
Telstra conducted measurements on its 5G network in 2019 and concluded that “5G EME levels were found to be well below the safety limit, and in many cases over a thousand times lower”. However, from a safe work perspective, 5G services should be treated the same as other radio services and the recommended safe work procedures for RF hazards are also applicable.
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