Phone Towers

Workers are often concerned when phone towers, antennas or transmitters are installed on the roof of their workplace.  This page provides information to OHS reps on the potential dangers of these towers.

Members may approach their health and safety reps with concerns about the installation of phone towers or transmitters on the roof of buildings, thousands of which have now been erected. It is important for OHS reps to be able to provide some information to their members and to have an idea about what they can do. This page provides this for OHS reps.

These towers are usually base transmitters for mobile telephone networks, and are now one of the most obvious sources of EMR in the environment. (See More information, below)

Action Plan for Health and Safety Reps

  • Before the installation of a base station aerial in, or near, your workplace is agreed, make sure that at the very least, the safety matters listed below have been fully addressed. Remember that under Sections 35 & 36 (Part 4) of the 2004 OHS Act, the employer must, as far as practicable, consult with you and any affected workers prior to changes to the workplace which may affect the health or safety of members of your DWG.  
  • Talk to members of your work group about the possible hazards of EMFs, and any effects they may be experiencing on a regular basis.
  • There is not very much you can do if there is already a phone tower on the roof of your own or a nearby building. However if you are concerned about the levels of EMR being emitted, then request that your employer monitor these.

The towers produce electromagnetic radiation in the form of microwaves and radio frequency waves 24 hours a day. Mobile phones have a very limited range. In order to get wider coverage, mobile phone companies have established a network of "Cells" each of which are served by a base station which relays mobile phone signals from one "Cell" to another. This is done in the form of electromagnetic radiation (EMR).

The aerials are normally sited on tall buildings to cover the widest area possible. This has meant that many employers and building owners have been approached with financial inducements for the siting of aerials on, or near, their premises. This has been a particular problem within schools and colleges.

In addition to their concerns about the aesthetic impact of base stations, communities have questioned their effects on health. The levels of radiation emitted by base stations are much lower than for a mobile phone and very much lower than those allowed by Australian standards and are therefore considered by some agencies to be safe. However, uncertainty about the long-term impacts of even low levels of radiation and concern about the adequacy of Australian standards to protect public health have generated worries about their impacts.

If you need more help or information, contact your Union.

Other issues for OHS reps

Health and safety reps should not only be concerned about the possible effects from radiation. There are three other safety concerns.

  1. Has the building has had a proper structural survey to see if it is capable of taking the weight of the aerial? This is essential and must include the effect of wind resistance on the aerial to make sure that it will be able to stand up to severe winds.
  2. Are there any security implications of an outside contractor requiring 24-hour access for maintenance? What effect will this have on the issue of security and cleaning staff?
  3. Will security arrangements be sufficient to ensure that children and others will be unable to gain assess to the mast? This is particularly an issue in schools.

Legislation

In the early days of mobile telephony, base stations were usually tall structures servicing large areas (cells). Legislation granted carriers immunity from council and state government regulations when they were erecting these towers. In 1997 the Federal Government introduced the Telecommunications Act, which obliged carriers to comply with state and local government regulations. In recent times there has been a trend towards smaller antennas servicing smaller cells.

The relevant Australian Standard does not provide adequate protection. It allows the public to be exposed to 200 µW/cm² (microwatts per square centimetre), whereas effects on the body have been shown at below 1 µW/cm². Committees that are often dominated by industry and presume that health effects occur only if the body is heated by 1°C set standards. However, there have been studies showing that effects on the body occur below the heating threshold.

Many councils have introduced policies on the siting of mobile phone towers designed to provide some protection for the public by avoiding sensitive areas, while still allowing carriers to erect their networks.

However, under the Federal legislation, erection of mobile phone towers classified as 'low impact' is permitted without council approval. The 'low impact' classification applies to the appearance (under 5 metres) and not the emissions of the antenna, which may be equal to/less than/greater than other antennas.

More information on Phone Towers

The towers produce electromagnetic radiation in the form of microwaves and radio frequency waves 24 hours a day. Mobile phones have a very limited range. In order to get wider coverage, mobile phone companies have established a network of "Cells" each of which are served by a base station which relays mobile phone signals from one "Cell" to another. This is done in the form of electromagnetic radiation (EMR).

The aerials are normally sited on tall buildings to cover the widest area possible. This has meant that many employers and building owners have been approached with financial inducements for the siting of aerials on, or near, their premises. This has been a particular problem within schools and colleges.

In addition to their concerns about the aesthetic impact of base stations, communities have questioned their effects on health. The levels of radiation emitted by base stations are much lower than for a mobile phone and very much lower than those allowed by Australian standards and are therefore considered by some agencies to be safe. However, uncertainty about the long-term impacts of even low levels of radiation and concern about the adequacy of Australian standards to protect public health have generated worries about their impacts.

What are the health effects of exposure to Mobile Phone Towers/Antennas?

Both microwaves and radio frequency waves can have a heating effect on substances containing water. Microwaves transmitted from base station aerials will only have this effect on a person who is extremely close to the aerial while it is transmitting or receiving. Controls are put in place to prevent any direct biological effects on the body due to heating.

In Australia, there have been no studies on the effects of radiation from mobile phone towers and no effort to monitor the health of people living near them. The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) announced on September 14, 2002, that a $2.5 million research centre will be established in Australia to study the possible health effects of electromagnetic energy emissions from mobile phones and mobile phone towers. While the NHMRC has funded and continues to fund a number of studies related to radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation, it believes that more studies are needed to provide comprehensive evidence.

Industry and Government maintain that there is no risk from the weak levels of radiation from mobile phone towers. However, there is still concern over whether even small exposures can cause cancer and other conditions. Some studies have shown that EMFs can cause changes in cellular structure, changes to brain patterns, etc. There remains a lack of consensus among the experts about whether and at what levels electric magnetic fields and electromagnetic radiation can affect humans.

The reality is also that there is a high level of concern regarding possible effects. The best approach to adopt therefore is a precautionary one. And this is the key issue for union members and health and safety reps: Should their health be put at potential risk by waiting for proof of harm beyond all reasonable doubt, before preventative action is taken; or should action be taken as a precaution before any conclusive evidence is found to prevent any potential harm?

It is possible that EMFs and EMR at the current levels are harmless, but they may not be. The question is whether we wait for overwhelmingly convincing proof, by which time many people may have been harmed or whether we take precautionary preventative steps now.

See also:

  • For more information on EMR, non-ionising radiation and mobile phones, go back to the Radiation section of this site.  
  • An article from EMR Australia, Pty Ltd  EMR Mobile Phone Phone Towers/Base Stations/Masts
  • Mobile phone base stations and EMR Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), in association with Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA), has produced some information on "electromagnetic energy" (EME) and mobile phone towers.   The site also has articles on Health exposure requirements, and Human Exposure to EME.  Beware, however, as it takes a conservative view of the potential hazards and rejects concerns that radiation emitted from towers and EMR causes health problems.
  • The American Cancer Society - webpage on Cellular Phone Towers
  • A Hazard Alert/Bulletin from Work Safe BC (Canada) Working around microwave radiation from rooftop antennas. The information provided includes advice on reducing exposure for workers, and various controls that can be implemented.
  • WHO factsheets on EMF  - there are a number of fact sheets available to download in a number of languages. The one on Base stations, reviews the scientific evidence on the health effects from continuous low-level human exposure to mobile phone base stations and other local wireless networks. It specifically addresses public concern with possible cancer clusters but states that as cancers are geographically unevenly distributed among any population and given the widespread presence of base stations in the environment, 'it is expected that possible cancer clusters will occur near base stations merely by chance'.

References

'Mobile Phone Aerial Transmitters' - a Hazard sheet produced by UK union UNISON
'The Facts about Phone Towers' - a Fact sheet produced by the Electromagnetic Association of Australia (now no longer in operation).

Last amended June 2015

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