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In Race For Better Cell Service, Men Who Climb Towers Pay With Their Lives

Corporate giants have outsourced the dangerous work of building and maintaining communications towers to tiny subcontracting companies. Over the last nine years, nearly 100 workers have died, 50 of them on cell sites. 

Tower climber Jay Guilford poses atop a cell tower. He was one of 11 climbers to die while working on AT&T jobs during a wave of cell service expansion from 2006 to 2008. Photo courtesy of Bridget Pierce.

This story was co-published with PBS Frontline, which will air a film version today. Check local listings.

In the spring of 2008, AT&T was racing to roll out a new cell phone network to deliver music, video and online games at faster speeds.

The network, known as 3G, was crucial to the company’s fortunes. AT&T’s cell service had been criticized by customers for its propensity to drop calls, a problem compounded when the company became the sole carrier for the iPhone.

Jay Guilford was a tiny but vital cog in the carrier’s plans.

On a clear evening in May, Guilford was dangling, 150 feet in the air, from a cell tower in southwest Indiana. He had been sent aloft to take pictures of AT&T antennas soon to be replaced by 3G equipment.

Work complete, Guilford sped his descent by rappelling on a rope. Safety standards required him to step down the metal pole, peg by peg, using a special line that would catch automatically if he fell. But tower climbing is a field in which such rules are routinely ignored.

“Bouncy, bouncy,” Guilford, 25, called jovially to men on the ground.

Then, in an instant, the hook attaching the rope to the tower – broken and missing its safety latch – came loose. Guilford plummeted to the gravel below, landing feet first. The impact shattered his legs and burst his aorta. He bled to death in minutes.

Cell phones are our era’s ubiquitous technology device. There are more active cell phones in the U.S. than people.

Communication Tower Deaths

Tower climbing, an obscure field with no more than 10,000 workers, has a death rate roughly 10 times that of construction. In the last nine years, nearly 100 tower climbers have been killed on the job. More than half of them were working on cell sites.

Cell sites 50
Other Towers Includes: television, radio, Internet, microwave, and government communication towers 43

Fatalities on Cell Sites

Cell carriers generally outsource tower work, asserting that it isn't part of their core business.

Major carriers AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, and Sprint 23
Regional carriers 12 regional carriers 17
Tower owners Seven tower owners 10

Among the major carriers

For the first time, our investigation has revealed the number of fatalities at subcontractors working on each carrier's networks.

Source: Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigations, ProPublica research

An investigation by ProPublica and PBS “Frontline” shows that the convenience of mobile phones has come at a hefty price: Between 2003 and 2011, 50 climbers died working on cell sites, more than half of the nearly 100 who were killed on communications towers.

Yet cell phone carriers’ connection to tower climbing deaths has remained invisible. They outsource this dangerous work to subcontractors, a practice increasingly common in risky businesses from coal mining to trucking to nuclear waste removal. If you look up the major cell carriers in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s database of workplace accident investigations, you will not find a single tower climber fatality listed.

Guilford didn’t work for AT&T – he worked for a subcontracting outfit affiliated with a bigger subcontractor hired by a construction management firm working for AT&T.

For each tower-related fatality since 2003, ProPublica and PBS “Frontline” traced the contracting chain from bottom to top, reviewing thousands of pages of government records and interviewing climbers, industry executives and labor experts.

We found that in accident after accident, deadly missteps often resulted because climbers were shoddily equipped or received little training before being sent up hundreds of feet. To satisfy demands from carriers or large contractors, tower hands sometimes worked overnight or in dangerous conditions.

One carrier, AT&T, had more fatalities on its jobs than its three closest competitors combined, our reporting revealed. Fifteen climbers died on jobs for AT&T since 2003. Over the same period, five climbers died on T-Mobile jobs, two died on Verizon jobs and one died on a job for Sprint.

The death toll peaked between 2006 and 2008, as AT&T merged its network with Cingular’s and scrambled to handle traffic generated by the iPhone. Eleven climbers died on AT&T jobs in those three years, including Guilford.

“I don’t think there’s any question that the pressure to build out the network has been a contributing factor to fatalities,” said Steve Watts, who worked as a risk manager at AT&T until 2007.

Current AT&T officials would not comment on the Guilford case and declined requests to be interviewed for this story, as did officials at the other major cell carriers.

In a written statement, AT&T said it required its contractors to follow safety regulations and that cell tower fatalities had decreased in recent years even as carriers have continued to make expensive improvements to their wireless networks. There were no fatalities on AT&T jobs last year, the statement noted.

“Worker safety has always been a hallmark of AT&T,” the statement said.

The carrier and its construction management firm, General Dynamics, had no employees on site when Guilford died – only subcontractors. Neither was sanctioned in OSHA’s investigation after the accident.

OSHA cited just one company for safety violations in the case: Nashville-based Phoenix of Tennessee, the parent company of All Around Towers, the subcontractor that had managed the climbing crew. Inspectors concluded that Phoenix of Tennessee had not removed broken equipment from the site or addressed unsafe work conditions in plain view. The company paid a fine of $2,500.

All Around Towers went out of business soon after the accident. Two of its owners, who started a new tower company called ETA Systems, declined to answer questions from ProPublica and PBS “Frontline.”

Kyle Waites, the owner of Phoenix of Tennessee and part-owner of All Around Towers, said he sent climbers for retraining and purchased new safety equipment after Guilford’s fall.

“Do I feel responsible to a degree? I think everybody does that was involved with it,” Waites said. “What caused Jay’s death was a chain of events that all could have, and should have, been prevented.”

But Waites said that those off site, like himself, could only do so much to ensure climbers’ safety – it had been up to All Around Towers, and Guilford himself, to follow the rules.

“Once you leave men alone, the men have to police themselves,” he said.

Jay Guilford left behind a fiancée, Bridget Pierce, and two young children.

Jay Guilford left behind a fiancée, Bridget Pierce, and two young children.

Guilford left behind a fiancée, Bridget Pierce, and two young children, Emily, now 7, and Aidan, now 5.

Under policies provided by Phoenix of Tennessee, Pierce received $200,000 in life insurance, but was denied worker’s compensation because an autopsy showed Guilford had recently smoked marijuana. Lawyers advised Pierce not to sue because of the drugs.

In her house on the outskirts of Murfreesboro, Tenn., Pierce keeps a framed picture of Guilford posing atop a cell tower. He’s smiling, his fists pumping in the air. After years of moving furniture and delivering pizza, he had loved his $10-an-hour climbing job, she said.

Still, Pierce cannot escape the sense that Guilford had been a disposable part to the companies that rely on men like him to go up cell towers.

“It’s like he didn’t exist,” she said. “They just pass the ball off to the next person. Everybody in this process should be held accountable.”

* * *

Until the 1990s, most tower work involved radio and television towers, which can be more than 1,000 feet high. Some phone companies employed staff climbers to work on microwave towers used for long-distance calling.

With the proliferation of cell phones, the pace and volume of tower work spiked.

Carriers blanketed the country with cell sites to extend service to the most remote areas. There are now more than 280,000 sites nationwide, up from 5,000 in 1990. Many advances in service require switching out antennas and doing other upgrades.

The surge of cell work forever altered tower climbing, an obscure field of no more than 10,000 workers. It attracted newcomers, including outfits known within the business as “two guys and a rope.” It also exacerbated the industry’s transient, high-flying culture.

Climbers live out of motel rooms, installing antennas in Oklahoma one day, building a tower in Tennessee the next. The work attracts risk-takers and rebels. Of the 33 tower fatalities for which autopsy records were available, 10 showed climbers had drugs or alcohol in their systems.

“It’s the wild, wild west of the technology industry,” said Victor Guerrero, a construction project manager and former climber. “You’ve got to have a problem to hang 150 feet in the air on an 8-inch strap. You’ve got to be insane.”

Since 2003, an analysis of OSHA records show, tower climbing has had a death rate roughly 10 times that of construction. In 2008, the agency’s top administrator, Edwin Foulke, called tower climbing “the most dangerous job in America” at an industry conference.

“That’s an alarming incidence of fatalities,” said John Henshaw, who preceded Foulke as OSHA’s administrator from 2001 to 2004. “It shouldn’t be tolerated.”

The same handful of factors crop up again and again in agency investigations of worker deaths, our reporting found. In two dozen cases, for example, inspectors found that workers on sites where fatalities occurred had received inadequate training, records show.

Climbers typically earn $10 or $11 an hour, yet some subcontracting companies demand they pay for their own safety gear, deducting money from their paychecks.

Faulty or misused equipment was identified in almost one-third of the tower-related deaths since 2003, OSHA records show. In April 2008, after 46-year-old William Bernard died in a 75-foot fall, an inspector found that his safety harness, rusty with wear, had a defective hook.

Carriers sometimes power down cell sites when climbers are on them, so subcontractors often work overnight, when fewer customers will notice disruptions. Jeremy Combs, 33, fell to his death just before midnight in September 2008, on a job where the crew wore headlamps and raced to meet an accelerated timetable, OSHA inspectors found.

A tower worker free-climbs.

A tower worker (left) "free-climbs," neglecting to attach himself to the tower in order to save time. Wally Reardon, a veteran climber who quit in 2002, takes photos of free-climbing to raise awareness of the practice (Photo courtesy of Wally Reardon).

Time pressure often leads tower hands to use a technique called free-climbing, in which workers don’t connect their safety harnesses to the tower. This allows them to move up, down and around more quickly, but leaves them without fall protection. In more than half of the tower fatalities we examined, workers were free-climbing, even though government safety regulations strictly prohibit it.

Wally Reardon, a veteran climber who quit in 2002, takes photos and video whenever he spots workers free-climbing to raise awareness about the practice. It often occurs within clear view of on-site supervisors and has their tacit approval, he said.

“Even the safest people I’ve worked with in the industry eventually will cave to it,” he said of the pressure to use such shortcuts.

After 32-year-old William Knorr died in a 2004 fall, OSHA found that his supervisors had “completely disregarded” safety regulations to save “Time, Work, Money,” an investigation report said. “Was there a motive? Faster and Easier.”

No one knows better than Ray Hull how time pressure can lead to injuries.

In November 2003, Hull, then 35, was hired by a subcontractor to help build a 350-foot cell tower for Nextel in a cornfield near Fremont, Neb. The job needed to be done by midnight on Thanksgiving, just seven days away.

The project ran into a series of problems. The crane operator, deciding it was too windy to work, took his crane and left. Hull found replacement equipment, but it was in Texas, more than 15 hours away. Setting out to retrieve it, Hull and another tower hand, Frankie Ketchens, drove nonstop, taking turns behind the wheel.

When they arrived back at the site two days later, there was a Nextel truck near the tower’s base. Hull assumed the carrier wanted to make sure the job was on time. He was mistaken – the driver was just a technician – but instead of returning to their motel to sleep, Hull and Ketchens immediately went to work.

When Hull had climbed 240 feet to add a section to the tower, Ketchens pulled the wrong lever on equipment hoisting a huge piece of steel. The equipment broke away from the tower and fell to the ground – with Hull attached. His safety harness broke his fall momentarily, then snapped.

Hull has no memory of falling or hitting the ground. When he came to, he saw Ketchens above him. “I said, ‘Frankie, I can’t live through this … You need to tell my family I love them,” Hull recalled.

According to court records, Hull suffered massive internal injuries. He sued three companies involved with the project, and received a settlement from the subcontractor that hired his firm.

His case against Nextel was dismissed, however. In court documents, the carrier argued that its final project deadline was actually a month later and hadn’t compelled the climbers to take undue risks.

The carrier also said it wasn’t responsible for Hull, who, as a subcontractor, was “three entities removed from any relationship with a NEXTEL entity.” (Nextel merged with Sprint in 2005. Sprint declined to comment on the case.)

Hull’s injuries left him unable to climb towers. He started climbing at 14, following his father and grandfather into the business. Nearly nine years after the accident, he still misses it horribly. “There’s probably not a human being alive that loved their job as much as I did,” he said. “Everything that I could do was taken from me.”

Watching an OSHA video of the accident scene for the first time late last year, his eyes welled with tears.

“It was a bad day. Or a good day depending on which way you look at it,’ he said. “I walked away from it.”

* * *

Photo

An OSHA investigation documents equipment from a fatal tower accident (Photo from OSHA investigation file).

Cell carriers give several reasons for why they outsource tower work: Building and maintaining towers, though crucial to cell service, isn’t part of their core business. Contractors have greater expertise with construction. It’s more economical to hire workers where and when needed, given the up-and-down volume of work.

“It makes good business sense for them to contract it out,” Watts said.

But handling tower work this way also insulates companies atop the contracting chain from legal and regulatory consequences when there are accidents, industry insiders say.

OSHA has the authority to cite carriers if it can prove they had direct control over work or knew of safety violations. Yet, even though some carriers set prices and timetables for tower jobs – and many of their technical specifications, down to how to color code coaxial cables – their supervisors typically stay off-site and do not manage jobs directly.

The oversight system provides an incentive for them not to know too much about what’s happening on work sites, labor experts say.

“Information that there are unsafe practices makes you responsible for fixing those practices,” said Thomas Kochan, a professor of management at MIT.

AT&T contracts spell out precisely what level of responsibility it wishes to have over each aspect of tower projects. In a table called the Division of Responsibilities Matrix, the carrier lists more than 100 tasks and, for each one, indicates if AT&T wants responsibility for it, to be consulted on it, or to be informed about it.

In three-year contracts issued in 2008 that were examined by ProPublica and PBS “Frontline,” the matrices were blank for safety-related items, such as ensuring that OSHA standards were met. Contractors told us they understood this to mean the carrier wanted no involvement with them at all. AT&T declined to answer questions about the matrix.

In addition to outsourcing tower work, some cell phone companies funnel jobs through middlemen known as turf vendors. AT&T does this on almost all tower jobs; in 2010, Sprint moved toward a similar system.

Turf vendors – typically large construction management firms such as General Dynamics, Bechtel and Nsoro – oversee batches of tower projects, subcontracting out the climbing work to smaller companies.

Ed Reynolds, AT&T’s president of network services until 2007, said middlemen lessened the administrative burden on carriers, giving them one big contractor to deal with instead of dozens of little ones.

“You got one throat to choke,” he said.

But subcontractors often contract out jobs to other subcontractors. As jobs are passed down from one company to the next, there’s less ability to control who’s actually doing the work, said Mark Hein, who has worked for several turf vendors as a construction manager.

When he was sent to check on cell sites last year, Hein discovered many subcontractors that hadn’t been approved by the turf vendor.

“I’d show up on site and expect to find Company A and instead find Company Z,” he said.

Many of the crews he came across weren’t taking the most rudimentary safety precautions.

“They didn’t have their hardhats, they didn’t have safety glasses, they didn’t have safety gear,” he said. Many of the climbers lacked training certificates.

Hein did not have time to visit every site he was assigned to supervise – there were just too many, he said, a common lament among other construction managers for turf vendors.

Turf vendors also take a cut of what carriers pay for tower work – sometimes 40 percent or more – so subcontractors say they make less on these jobs.

In AT&T contracts examined by ProPublica and PBS “Frontline,” the carrier requires turf vendors to reduce their prices 5 percent each year over the three-year term of the contract. These reductions are typically passed through to subcontractors, industry insiders said.

“Guess who takes the hit? The next level [down],” said a construction manager for a turf vendor. “I’m not going to reduce the amount of money I take.”

Chris Deckrow, who owns a small climbing company in Michigan, showed ProPublica and PBS “Frontline” the price sheet for AT&T jobs. For the task of installing a remote radio head, the price sheet said, the carrier would pay the turf vendor $187 and the turf vendor would pay the subcontractor $93.

Deckrow said his company – which often works as a subcontractor of a subcontractor – has been paid as little as $40 for installing remote radio heads. Overall, he said, he makes less than half the money working for a turf vendor that he would make working directly for a carrier.

Hein said the difference in pay dictates which companies take jobs involving turf vendors.

“Rather than paying this amount to this guy, who’s really qualified and … has a great reputation, they hire this person over here because he’s available right now and he’ll do it for what we want him to do it for,” he said.

Verizon, which hires subcontractors directly, tends to work with the same select group of climbing companies over and over, paying them more, subcontractors say. David Coleman, an industry analyst at RBC Capital Markets, described becoming a Verizon subcontractor as the “golden ticket.”

Several subcontractors complained that they had to cut corners to turn a profit on turfing jobs, using three-man crews instead of four, putting in 18-hour days, hiring less experienced men and working through inclement weather.

Reynolds, who now works as an industry consultant, dismissed such gripes. “There’s enough subcontractors out there willing to work,” he said. Those that don’t like the prices, he said, will “do something else.”

Buckling on a harness before mounting a 300-foot tower last March to check out a broken light, Deckrow described how tight margins erode safety.

He said he’s struggled to pay insurance premiums, cut back on training programs and delayed buying new safety gear for his men.

“This is stuff they have to wear every day in order to live through the day,” he said. “We would love to replace it every year, every two years … It’s not in the budget.”

Deckrow said earlier this month that he had decided to close his company rather than making further cuts.

“I want to be able to not worry about my guys not coming home,” he said. Throughout the industry, companies are choosing between safety and staying in business, he added. “If we’re not properly maintained or trained, then people will die. It’s only a matter of time.”

* * *

Most inside the industry agree that AT&T faced unique challenges and pressure to build out its network (Frontline PBS).

Most inside the industry agree that AT&T faced unique challenges and pressure to build out its network (PBS "Frontline").

The worst years for cell site fatalities in the last decade were 2006 and 2008.

There is no way to correlate these figures with workloads or to compare one carrier’s tower work to another’s because such information is proprietary. As of mid-2011, the four major carriers had varying numbers of cell sites: Verizon had 44,250, T-Mobile had 50,143, AT&T had 56,070 and Sprint had 67,500, according to data from US Wireless 411, a report by UBS.

Most inside the industry agree, however, that AT&T faced unique challenges and pressure to build out its network.

After Cingular merged with AT&T in 2004, the combined company (which later took the AT&T name) had to join its network systems, adjusting virtually every single cell site. Reynolds compared it to replacing the engines of a 747 in mid-flight.

In 2006, when the bulk of this work was done, 10 climbers died on cell site projects, including four on jobs for AT&T within two months.

William “Bubba” Cotton, 43, was the first, crushed to death on March 10 when a rope snapped, dropping a 50-pound antenna on him. According to OSHA documents and court records, the accident occurred as two crews – one aloft and one on the ground – rushed to complete work on a tower in Talladega, Ala., before an upcoming NASCAR race. AT&T would not extend the deadline for the job despite a request from a crew leader, two workers testified in sworn depositions. (The company declined to comment on the case.)

The pressure ratcheted up again when AT&T became the exclusive carrier for the iPhone.

After the phone debuted in summer 2007, triggering a tsunami of data usage, customers began complaining about dropped calls and spotty service. According to a report in Wired, AT&T went to Apple, asking for help in limiting traffic to buy time for tower upgrades. Instead, Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs explored switching to Verizon, the report said.

To prepare for the iPhone 3G’s introduction in summer 2008, AT&T poured billions of dollars into wireless capital expenditures. The push meant work on an unprecedented scale for tower climbers.

“It was nuts,” said Dan MacRae, a project manager who has worked on cell site projects for several turf vendors. “We were working in the field for 40 hours straight. They had crews in rain, sleet, snow.”

The building boom was accompanied by a string of accidents.

After two climbers died on AT&T jobs within a five-day period in April 2008, the carrier sent a letter to turf vendors calling for a construction stand down to discuss safety procedures and hold half-day courses to retrain workers.

But Guilford died just three and a half weeks after the work stoppage. Two more climbers died on AT&T jobs within the next four months.

AT&T would not answer questions about the stand down. In its statement, the carrier said that fatalities have decreased in the years since the stand down, aided by a safety initiative by OSHA and the tower industry.

Craig Lekutis – the founder of WirelessEstimator.com, a trade publication for the tower climbing industry – said the stand down turned out to be “more lip service” and not a long-term commitment.

Lekutis has tracked tower fatalities since 2004 and memorializes each lost climber on his website.

“Sadly, the major players know it’s happening and know that they are contributors to it,” he said, “but they don’t do anything.”

* * *

Ethan Hutchinson, 18, died in May 2010 after falling from a tower in Arkansas

Ethan Hutchinson, 18, died in May 2010 after falling from a tower in Arkansas.

Tower-climbing fatalities have dropped considerably since the end of 2008.

Nine climbers died on cell site projects between 2009 and 2011, less than half as many as in the three previous years. There has been only one fatality on an AT&T job since 2009. Ethan “Little Britches” Hutchinson, 18, died in May 2010 after falling from a tower in Arkansas when his safety gear malfunctioned.

Some in the industry point to improved safety practices to explain the smaller death toll. Others say the recession cut into the volume of tower work and that, after finishing 3G upgrades, much of what carriers needed could be done on the ground.

With the next big push – building out 4G LTE networks – just getting underway in major markets, some veteran climbers worry that the fatality numbers will rise again.

“If not this year, another bad year is going to come,” said Reardon, the tower industry veteran. “It’s all about trying to do things faster and cheaper.”

The subcontracting system remains much as it was during the worst years, climbers say.

There are also many young men like Jay Guilford, with few prospects and no experience, willing to climb towers if it means a steady paycheck.

Years later, the horror of Guilford’s death remains fresh to Pierce, who was engaged to him at the time. She remembers receiving the phone call from his father as she arrived home from shopping for an upcoming trip to Disney World.

“I freaked out and screamed and just screamed and screamed,” she said.

Yet, about a year and a half later, when her current boyfriend was out of work, Pierce approached Phoenix of Tennessee to ask if he could apply to be a tower climber.

In retrospect, she regretted doing so, she said, but it was the only company she knew that had work. Ultimately, he found a job at Jack in the Box.

Guilford’s stepbrother, Anthony Acker, also sometimes works as a tower climber. The family tried to talk him out of returning to it about a year ago.

“He said, ‘Don’t worry about me, old man, I’m being careful,” said Gary Hart, Acker’s father and Guilford’s stepfather. “I just hope it all works out for him because I don’t want to go through all this again.”

Part 2: How OSHA has struggled to police this dangerous industry.

Travis Fox of PBS “Frontline,” Robin Respaut and Kirsten Berg of ProPublica and Habiba Nosheen contributed to this report.

PBS "Frontline" aired a film version of this story. Check local listings.

Thank you for doing this story and shedding light on the high demands and all to often impossible deadlines these men work under. They work in all weather, for countless hours, they spend days and weeks away from home, they are often sleep deprived and always under paid.  Men~ Husbands, Fathers, Sons, Uncles, Nephews, Friends…should not have to die so we can talk on our cell phones and so towers can be built as fast and as cheaply as possible. SHAME ON YOU AT&T!!!  In loving memory of Jeremy Scott Combs 7-5-75~9-12-08. May God bless the families of the fallen.

What you describe is not the cost of smart phone technology, but the cost of inadequate health and safety legislation/regulation in the United States.  Do you have comparative data for other countries?

I find it hard to believe, that a man dies for doing his job and everyone makes him out to be a bad guy, Accidents happen on every job site and thats why they are called accidents, Why do companies pay for insurance if something happens. Crazy if he was walking across the street and got hit by a car, and died there wouldn’t be a story.

The video states that OSHA fined them 2.500 dollars, What a joke OSHA is.This is why there should be serious whistleblower protection OSHA so workers are protected if they step forward.

There are many at fault for Guilford’s death. He is just the first in a line of people who failed him. He is ultimately responsible for his own actions. Just look at the photo at the top of this news story. These are not professionals acting how they must act to complete a work task. These are kids taking photos of each other doing dangerously “cool” work they can brag about to their friends and family, if they live to talk. Guilford’s co-workers are next in line to point the finger at. Anyone he worked with who watched him climb unsafely should have stopped him or at least mentioned it to the foreman. Which makes the foreman next in line. He is the company’s on-site representative to oversee all aspects of the job, including the safe actions of all of the workers. He should’ve enforced safe climbing practices and personally inspected the rigging equipment he and his crew put to use each day. The company he works for is next in line. They are RESPONSIBLE to properly train their employees to identify ALL recognized hazards in their workplace and give their employees the knowledge and equipment to safely remove or control those hazards. They are also responsible to enforce this safety training out in the field. Next in line would be the contract company who hired them. They should have safety requirements in their contract that requires any contractor they hire to follow and obey, including gear inspections and currently trained employees. This requirement should be included as the chain of middle man companies continues all the way up to the primary carrier, AT&T, Verizon, whoever. All should be held responsible and all should be included in OSHA investigations and all should be ashamed of their part in any death that happens in this industry. Anyone who points the fingers away from themselves within this chain should have their most cherrished relative become a tower climber.

I’ve worked with tower climbers before, and they’re a ballsy bunch.

It’s one of the dangerous jobs there is, and they’re more than willing to do it.  I helped out on the ground-support crew, and nobody asked me to climb a tower.

Also, professional training safety training is available from companies like Comtrain, and I’m under the impression that many employers require this kind of training.

I respect these guys a lot, but I don’t feel the need to decry the danger of their profession as a tragedy.  Nobody makes them do it.  You can make just as good money on the ground.  They all know the correct way to climb a tower, and some of them voluntarily skip things like moving one tether at a time when they want to climb quickly.

Anyway, these guys are skilled and ballsy.  You probably couldn’t get me to do this work, no matter how much you paid me. The environment in which they operate is fundamentally dangerous and, while it can be made safer, but hanging out in space 1000’ above the ground on a tower that’s swaying in the wind will never be safe.  I hear the view is fantastic. There’s a lot to respect about the people who step up to do this work for us.

While I regret that Jay paid with his life, I can’t see how this is AT&T’s fault. They didn’t make the ropes, forget the safety harness, ask him to go bouncy-bouncy, or instruct him not to follow safety precautions. Sure, the demand for output may be high, but it is up to workers and their direct employers to ensure their safety. I do respect the difficult nature of the job, but to demonize a wireless carrier for this is a reach. If you must find flaws with AT&T, there are many other areas such as hidden / unexplained fees,  etc.

In 2003 deaths per towers built equaled 1 death every 11.6 towers. Eight years latter, without government oversight regulations or accurate incident data, the death rate is basically the same: 1 death every 11.5 towers.  What is morally wrong with this industry and its wireless cohorts that it has done virtually nothing to ameliorate this unacceptable death rate.  Like my Repub daddy always said, “business will do nothing that it is not forced to do by the government. Corporations are souless,” this from the mouth of an oil and gas VP.

Sara…where did you get the figures on deaths per towers built?

Safety, Quality, Training and Professionalism come at a price. When the carriers don’t pay for it directly, the money needed for these must-haves is wasted (sometimes up to 50%-60%) on administrative middle men. This leaves little money to pay the small subcontracting companies at the bottom. These companies have small or non-existent budgets for Safety training, equipment and litlle to no ability to pay or retain experienced, quality people. If OSHA truly wants to protect tower workers they need to make the big carriers responsible legally and monetarily for ensuring Safety compliance of all their subcontractors of any tier. Until that day, small companies that don’t comply will be fined out of existence only to be replaced almost instantly with another company with the same problems while the big carrier remains unaffected, free to continue its practices without fear of any legal consequences from the government or the family of a fallen climber.

Gregg and AJ, I agree with you, EXCEPT that (as Sara points out) the real death rate hasn’t changed and the carriers must know that if any of us does.  By not demanding change (by, for example, firing everybody down the chain of command whenever there’s so much as a hint of breaking regulation), they’re complicit.

Arguably, by allowing this to happen with foreknowledge, they’re shifting from the murky area of non-compliance with regulation to the much worse area of being responsible for manslaughter or negligent homicide.

Of course, for the real punchline, wait about ten or fifteen years.  In about three years, with the amount of money being poured into it, expect the third world to be running on decentralized mesh networks.  A few years after that, look for the technology to be imported, just as surely as cellular was imported from northern Europe.  A few after that, most of this infrastructure will be worthless and even the carriers will likely be marginal players if they’re not extremely clever.

It’s bad enough that it happens.  That it happens because of what amounts to a twenty-five year fad…?

John:
“That it happens because of what amounts to a twenty-five year fad…?”

You underestimate how useful the cell network is.  If you’re correct, then it’s twenty five years of really fast 911 calls from exactly where help is required, as well as the friction-reducing effects of nearly universal instant communication.  That’s something that Matters, even if it might be obsolete one day.

It may not be as important as food, water, or sanitation—but the world is a much better place because of this kind of universal/instant communication.

I would like to see tower climbing made safer.  But we need to have some perspective on a) the benefits and b) the guys who voluntarily do this fundamentally dangerous work.

I agree that there are certainly uses, Luke (though I don’t use a cellphone, myself—can’t stand the things), though the concentration of towers suggests that it’s a side-effect, rather than a goal for the companies.  I remember a time when, after all, there was no 911 access on the cellular network, because the carriers didn’t see it as a revenue source (a.k.a., even though any child knows how to triangulate signals, the phone company can’t figure out where you are, so it’s not worth letting you dial 911).

no comments on the layers of sub contractor after sub contractor?  just like over in iraq? 

something needs to be done about that as well. i have a problem with middle men, who make a pile of money for doing absolutely SQUAT. RIP all you guys who died, and God bless your families. Damn the system. Another case for govt regulation, in my book. At the very least these ought to be prevailing wage jobs, and pay these guys what they are worth.

As a lawyer, I would like to point out that the legal system at its finest is designed to protect those in need of protecting.  The entire tort-based body of law looks at who is in the best position to prevent injuries, and making that entity share at least a portion of the responsibility for any negative outcomes.  An example of this overarching principle is seen in the fact that we protect young children against their own naivity by making owners of property responsible even when the kids trespass and do something stupid that causes their own injury.  In my opinion, the types of injuries occurring during the building of these towers could easily be prevented by having AT&T responsible for overseeing the safety aspect- b/c then an injury would mean money out of their pocket.  Unless and until this happens, foolish young men (or even older men trying to be quick enough to keep their jobs), are going to die.  But, do Americans (or, I should say- Congress) care about 11 deaths over two years, compared to their precious iPhones?  Yah, not so much… the death toll will have to get a lot higher before anything happens on this point.

Franklin S Werren

May 23, 2012, 9:20 p.m.

As a former climber myself in the 80’s, the sight of someone freeclimbing the cell towers in my area makes me shudder,,,, Good training and good safety practices is a must. I have seen both AT&T and Verizion climbers do that stupid practice. I should start taking pictures of this.

The problem as mentioned by others and the story is sub-sub-sub-contracting. If all the middleman paper pushers were taken out they could afford higher pay or at least gear that stays safe. AT&T needs to do as Verizon directly hire the sub-contractor that does the work. AT&T really only pays lip service to safety to win a lawsuit in court. They preach safety but don’t allocate the time in their jobs to actually do the work by the rules.
I was shocked to read the $10 an hour pay for a very dangerous job if you don’t follow ALL the safety rules.

So…the guy ignores safety regulations, jokes “bouncy bouncy” while repelling (which is not allowed), and it’s AT&T’s fault?

When did we lose the concept of personal responsibility and accountability?

I guess now I’m waiting for the next story where AT&T forced this guy to take a tower job.

One more thing: that picture of him posing on top of the tower might be cool, but it’s not how a professional in his position on top of a tower should be acting.

I feel bad for him and his family, but this is his fault, no one else’s. He chose to ignore safety rules and unfortunately paid with his life.

PT, as I mentioned in my first comment, that excuse was viable thirty years ago, but not today.

For the first death, sure, blame the sub-sub-sub-contractor.  When it keeps happening, blame the guy who hired him.  When it keeps happening, I apologize for the metaphor, but climb up the tower until you find the guy who has to know what’s happening (or is willfully negligent in learning about the cost of human life) and keeps hiring contractors who don’t monitor their contractors.

Holding the carrier away from responsibility is like arguing that one is not guilty of murder because he only hired the hitman and never actually touched the victim.

Tower climbers are a strange and mysterious breed.

Many years ago, I worked at a radio station that was putting up a new 150 foot tower.  The guy putting up the tower for us started his day with a six pack.  As the top section of the tower went up, it would not drop properly into place, so he took off his climbing belt, crawled onto the TOP of the tower, and jumped up and down.

I almost reached for a six pack just watching him.

I repeat: tower climbers are a strange an mysterious breed.

stephen.wille

May 24, 2012, 1:03 p.m.

Did I just miss it, or was the number of deaths per company compared as a percentage?  That’s the only thing that counts.

My youngest brother is one of these faceless, invisible tower climbers.  I lay awake at nights worrying about him and the risks he takes every day for a measly $10 per hour so that we are not inconvenienced. He’s out there in all types of inclement weather, in freezing and searing temperatures, working on towers that emit radiation, so that cell phone service is maintained for all of us.  Many of his buddies have fallen and died.  Despite this, he loves his job and has asserted that there is nothing else in the world he would rather do, but that is no reason to take advantage of him.  The only way to correct this travesty is to make the carriers responsible.  There has to be some accountability at the carrier level.  We need individuals to publicize and champion their situation. Sadly, this program airs in our area at 12:30 am so no one is going to have an opportunity to see this.  This issue commands much more visibility.  Currently, there are no advocates for these invisible men, who risk their lives every day so that AT&T, T-Mobile, etc, can avoid liability and maximize profits.

Jerry W. Patterson

May 24, 2012, 10:29 p.m.

I am retired after working for a large railroad-39 years.  My last classification was Towerman, I worked on Microwave towers.  I am here to tell you there is no such thing as an accident. That was drilled into each and every one of us, on the railroad.  It started with the CEO and went right down the line.  That wasn’t the way it was when I started working (1965), but the Industry was being sued on a regular basis and our railroad hired Du-pont to do a safety audit.  I am proud that my railroad took them seriously.  Incidentally we were UNION, both previously and after this took place. This was a management decision backed by labor.  We were told “If you can’t do the job SAFTELY don’t do it ” it was up to management to have the resources available.  I never saw management fail to back up a worker if he said it wasn’t safe to do the job.

I’ve always been flabbergasted that folks do this work for so little money.  I used to do a lot of tower work, not cell towers but other communications towers up to 300’ or so, both erection and maintenance.  I charged $150 per hour on site and thought that was cheap.

Of course the funny thing was I got lots of work, because the big companies in the field, like the ones mentioned here, would charge $500-$1000 per hour for the same work so they’re making a pretty good margin on the jobs.

I did it for about 10 years and decided to retire from the field while I still could.  People always used to say they couldn’t do the work because they’re scared of heights.  My reply was that I was terrified the entire time, that’s what kept me alive.  The day I wasn’t scared was the day to quit.  Unfortunately that’s ultimately what often gets people killed, they get too comfortable and start skipping the safety steps they should be using.  I’ve personally seen that happen to several people and each time it was the same story, got in a hurry which led to the problem.

I have seen the videos of these climbers scaling these towers.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tgO4Gd4RhvM

There are ample opportunities to latch on for safety and they are ignored as the climbers move up.  I understand speed and efficiency but why not implement some ratcheting safety harness that allows for quick upward movement but will catch quickly on an abrupt downward fall.

For moving down the system could be segmented with a lead rope and as you make your way from one checkpoint to the next activating a lower checkpoint will release the one above holding your harness and slides the lock down to the one you just activated   As the lead on our rope slacks you can move on to the next checkpoint.

If you can build a tower that stretches 1700 ft in the air emitting invisible to the eye wave patterns so that people on one side of the planet can communicate as if they are standing right next to someone on the other side of the planet then implementing such simple ideas should be a song.

Sara: Please clarify your numbers…  there are 280,000 towers now and as the graph and accompanying explanation shows, there have only been 100 deaths. Get over yourself.

Ultimately it is the captain of the ship, the pilot of the plane and the climber of the tower who is responsible for safety. If you refuse safety gear you will die . . . what ever the reason.

There are some trades in which a worker never gets to make but one mistake. The first mistake is lethal. Said straight the greatest fear for many such workers is not being killed at work. Their bodies and health take such a beating that living to old age brings too much pain. The guys that take trees out of power lines are a great example. Most abuse alcohol due to the pain of their work and the numbers still able to work at all after the age of 50 are quite small. It is rather like the fighter pilots in WWII. Sober men could not do the job. Some of America’s best flew combat missions while drunk.

The sub-contractor cut-out is just too damned convenient, and although this was a great piece of journalism, the top people at the carriers and turf vendors, will most likely keep their heads down until it blows over. 

As an Operations Manager with Cable & Wireless in the UK in the 90’s.  One of my teams were responsible for all antenna rigging activities for the company in my region.  However, it was Cable & Wireless’s Health & Safety Department who took proactive action and managed climber training, equipment inspections and spot checks. Although commercially aware, they were not responsible for deadlines. If harnesses needed replacing, then they were changed regardless of budget pressures. Even sub-contractors weren’t exempt the inspection and approval process of the C&W Heath & Safety department. 

Also, accidents are often indicators that the job is probably not being done properly anyway.  If you’re inclined to cut out safety steps, then you are also likely to take short cuts in installation quality.  Short-cut increases operational costs in other ways - poor reliability, rework - and lawyers fees when it all goes wrong.  More than that, somebody’s son, dad, husband is lost and cannot be replaced.

Make the client responsible for a rigid regime of ensuring compliance with safety rules and standards.

Most accidents are reasonably avoidable, therefore make it an expensive mistake personally for the man at the top of the carrier, should his management team fails to regulate their sub-contractors adequately, and accidents happen on their sites. 

Look to your politicians to do their job and champion these young guys before too many more die.

This is the fruit of deregulation.

I am not sure of the current state of OHS regulations/standards in the USA, but here in Australia you really cannot go wrong.

As a Telecommunications Rigger myself I have to hold:
Construction white card (to be on a construction site/perform works)
High risk workers card (to perform any rigging tasks)
Work at heights card ( to work at heights)
Tower Rescue certificate ( to be able to perform height related rescues)
Senior First Aid

... I could go on with site specific training/inductions

All of these require varying degrees of training and courses to be completed to make sure I am aware of the risks and how to avoid/reduce them.
My Climbing and RIgging gear is formally inspected every six months, and I check it before every use.

If an accident or death occurs, its because the worker ignored his training, cut a corner, or is the victim of a series of very unfortunate events.

It’s because of the the turfing vendor model.  The carriers nickel and dime their turf vendors who in turn nickel and dime the subs who in turn can’t afford to pay for quaility help which is why you have kids climbing 400’ tower for barely minimum wage.

So, there have been 100 deaths and there are over 300,000 towers, with each being climbed multiple times per year? Let’s say 3 times per year (very low). You totaled the 100 deaths across 8 years. That’s, let’s see, 7.2 MILLION climbs. 100 deaths in 7.2 million climbs? Given the danger of this profession, that seems like a stellar safety record to me. That’s a .0001 error rate. I wish my profession could be that good! We kill that many medical patients in TWO WEEKs in the US from preventable medical errors.

As is typical with Frontline hit pieces, the producers would like you to believe they have uncovered some deep problem or conspiracy in their blind pursuit of a Pulitzer ro to compete with 60 Minutes. I love the hired-gun-deep-voice-guy they have introduce their shows and segments. OOOhhhh, this is deeeeeep stuuuuf.

In reality, Frontline is a purely anti-American, anti-worker, and anti-capitalist entity that is, at least partially funded by radical organizations. Unfortunately, Frontline wont release their financials, so we are not quite sure.

What we do know is that they consistently try to blame unrelated parties for an injured person’s foolishness. Here we have a tear-jerker story about a doper with two kids and a “fiance” (read: babies’ mommy looking for a big lawsuit payday from estranged putative father) who blatantly violated very clear safety rules and standards, and somehow this is twisted into corporation hit piece.

When a worker dies on a pole or a tower, it is usually (not always) the direct result of his or her laziness or foolishness, and should not be blamed on coworkers or companies three-times removed from the accident.

Although Frontline would like you to believe otherwise, AT&T and Verizon would very much like to employ these workers. However, they can’t because of rolling turf demand in the industry. The piece makes it sound like big carriers would rather not employ workers. This is simply not true.  Hiring subs presents quality and business continuity issues.

This Frontline “investigation” is superficial, sensational, muckraking that certainly pleases Frontline’s financial backers. But it’s far from quality journalism. As is often the case with this bunch, don’t believe the hype.

“Although Frontline would like you to believe otherwise, AT&T and Verizon would very much like to employ these workers. However, they can’t because of rolling turf demand in the industry. The piece makes it sound like big carriers would rather not employ workers. This is simply not true.  Hiring subs presents quality and business continuity issues.”

Ron, this is simply not true.  The only thing large companies are concerned with is the cost.  AT&T wants there to be separation by use of middle men contractors so the company isn’t liable when an accident happens.  AT&T would love to get rid of their workers and hire out all sub contractors.  I can tell you that quality is NOT a concern.  Just get it done by this deadline for this cost.  If it would actually work with soup cans and string, believe me - that would suffice.  That way the CEO gets a bigger bonus from all the money saved.

I do believe that if the main companies would hire the workers or at least only one sub-contracting group (instead of multiple), safety would HAVE to become a larger factor.  Safety is the first thing put on the back burner when there are deadlines to meet and money to be made.

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