Rope Failure Indicated in Fatal KHIN Tower Fall

The investigation into an accident that left three men dead at the base of a 1,500-foot Iowa public television tower in late May turned up safety violations leading to a $3,000 fine.

Leo Deters, 57, of Norwalk, Iowa; 27-year-old Jason Galles of Des Moines and 19-year-old Jon McWilliams of Cumming, Iowa died while riding a headache ball up the tower to change light bulbs. When the load line supporting the headache ball failed, the men plunged nearly 1,200 feet to the ground. Industry sources have said it's not unusual for crew members to ride the headache ball, a weight used to counterbalance the load line.

The Iowa Division of Labor Services cited Deters Tower Service of suburban Des Moines for violations deemed "serious" under the Iowa Occupational Health and Safety Act. The citation stated that "deficiencies included but were not limited to:
A) Three employees were permitted to ride the load line simultaneously without the use of a personnel platform, [required for more than two people.] No independent fall protection system was in place.
B) The load line was a 5/16-inch synthetic rope with hand-tied knots placed as employee attachment points and terminations. The synthetic rope could become damaged from contact with the tower structural members, therefore resulting in line failure.
C) Employees riding the load line were not protected at the crown block by an anti-two blocking mechanism. This could result in the load contacting the top block resulting in a load line failure.
D) The general purpose hoist being utilized was not approved for elevating personnel, the hoist controls were not clearly labeled, the unit was equipped with a chain drive and a friction clutch that could fail, allowing the load to free fall.

A witness at the scene said the load line rope was Kevlar. The OSHA directive governing tower work, CPL 2-1.36, doesn't specifically prohibit the use of synthetic rope for hoisting personnel. It instead requires the use of wire rope, according to Gordon Lyman, chairman of the OSHA Relations Committee for the National Association of Tower Erectors.

"It may not be totally clear in section VIII, but is referenced in several other locations that the intent of the CPL was to indicate that when hoisting personnel, only wire rope shall be used," said Lyman, who is also vice president of safety and quality assurance for WesTower Communications in San Antonio.

Another veteran of tower work said it was not considered common practice to ride synthetic rope. He also said that even though Kevlar rope is as strong as steel cable of the same diameter, knotting it calls for a 50 percent downgrade in break strength.

Investigators found the rope broken at the scene, but it was not identified as the cause of the accident at that time.

In addition to the hoist and load line violations, the Iowa Division of Labor Services cited Deters for allowing an employee to free climb the tower to rig the load line. Safety belts and straps are required for tower work more than four feet above the ground.

The death of Leo Deters, proprietor of Deters Tower Service, shocked members of the tower community who considered him one of the safer people in the business. He was remembered for his generosity, civility and patience.

A staff member at the family-owned business confirmed that it is up for sale.