Tower climbing, an obscure field with no more than 10,000 workers, has a mortality rate roughly 10 times that of construction. In the last nine years, alone, nearly 100 tower climbers have been killed on the job. Alarmingly, more than half of them were working on cell sites. An investigation led by ProPublica and PBS “Frontline” shows that the convenience of mobile phones has come at a hefty price: Between 2003 and 2011, there were 50 tower climber deaths, more than half of the nearly 100 who were killed on communications towers.
Cell phone carriers’ outsource this dangerous tower climber jobs to subcontractors, a practice increasingly common in risky businesses from coal mining to trucking to nuclear waste removal. Due to this aspect, cell phone carriers’ connection to tower climbing deaths has remained invisible. In the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s database of workplace accident investigations, you will not find a single tower climber fatality listed.
“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” (Day, 2012). 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 make matters worse, to satisfy demands from carriers or large contractors, tower hands sometimes worked overnight or in dangerous conditions (Day, 2012).
PBS reporting revealed that AT&T had more fatalities on its jobs than its three closest competitors combined. The death toll peaked between 2006 and 2008, as AT&T merged its network with Cingular’s and scrambled to grasp traffic achieved by the iPhone. “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. All other major cell carriers would not comment and declined requests to be interviewed for this story.
It has never been a particularly well kept secret that tower climbing is an incredibly dangerous job. Seen by many as more of an extreme sport than a safe working environment, there are many different courses and qualifications that have been made available to those that want to work as tower climbers, in order to better equip them as tower climbers. As such, knowing the risks is important to avoid tower climber deaths.
Sadly, there has been an increase in people working on towers dangerously over the last couple of years. There are a few reasons for this: firstly, many people are being laid off, leaving the same number of towers for a smaller number of tower climbers. This means that some tower climbers are driving for more than twelve hours, and then immediately going up a tower. Secondly, there seems to be a level of peer pressure to climb with a smaller and smaller amount of safety gear, which is just ridiculous. And lastly, safety equipment is incredibly expensive, and some tower climbers that are just starting out do not have the initial funds to purchase all of the gear that they require.
Tower Climber Death Rate
Until the 1990s, most tower work convoluted radio and television towers, which can be more than 1,000 feet high. Some phone companies employed staff climbers to endeavor on microwave towers used for long-distance calling. However, with the proliferation of cell phones, the pace and volume of tower work spiked. Carriers blanketed the country with cell locations to extend service to the most remote areas. Many advances in service require converting out antennas and doing other upgrades. The surge of cell phone work, forever altered tower climbing; an obscure field of with no more than 10,000 workers. It attracted newcomers, including outfits known within the organization as “two guys and a rope.” It also exacerbated the businesses transient, high-flying culture (Day, 2012).
Climbers live out of motel rooms, inaugurating antennas in Oklahoma one day and building a tower in Tennessee the next day. Tower climbers typically earn around $50,000 per year. The job seems to attract risk-takers and rebels. Of the 33 tower fatalities for which autopsy records were accessible, 10 showed climbers had drugs or alcohol in their systems. An analysis of OSHA records demonstrates that tower climbing has had a death rate roughly 10 times that of construction. In two dozen cases, for example, inspectors found that workers on sites where fatalities occurred had acquired inadequate training. Faulty or misused equipment was responsible in almost one-third of the tower-related deaths since 2003. Carriers sometimes power down cell sites when climbers are on them, so subcontractors often work overnight, which increases the risk of injury (Day, 2012).
Time pressure often leads tower hands to use a technique called free-climbing, in which workers don’t attach their safety harnesses to the tower. This allows them to move up, down and around more quickly, but leaves them without fall insurance. In more than half of the tower fatalities examined, workers were, in fact, free-climbing, even though government safety regulations strictly forbid it. It is very appealing and most climbers eventually give in to it (Day, 2012).
Cell carriers give several reasons for why they outsource their tower work: Building and maintaining towers, though crucial to cell service, isn’t part of their core business, is one. Contractors have greater expertise with construction and it’s more economical to hire workers where and when needed, given the up-and-down volume of work. Handling tower work this way also insulates companies atop the contracting chain from legal and regulatory consequences when there are accidents (Day, 2012).
Tower-climbing fatalities have decreased considerably since the end of 2008. Some in the industry give credit to improved safety practices to explain the smaller death toll. Others say the recession has cut into the volume of tower work and that, after finishing 3G upgrades, much of what carriers required could be done on the ground. With the next big push i.e. building out 4G LTE networks, just getting underway in major markets, some veteran climbers continue to worry that the fatality numbers will rise again (Day, 2012).
There have been many more tower climber deaths in the industry in the last few months, which is worrying many people. In 2013, thirteen individual tower climbers were killed at work sites, which was a larger number of tower climbers than those that died in 2011 and 2012 combined. It is only May, and already another four tower climbers have died in 2014.
The majority of tower climbers deaths occur due to falls from a ridiculously high distance. However, two of those that have died in the last fourteen months were killed when a tower collapsed on top of them in West Virginia, and that was not the end of the incident, a fire fighter died trying to aid the tower climber, and another two tower workers were highly injured due to the destruction. Some have argued that tower climbers have a risk of having a fatality thirty times more likely than the average American worker, which is quite a scary prospect.
Is Tower Climbing Worth The Risk?
Many people believe that tower climbers are paid such high amounts of money per year as partly ‘danger money’, just as surgeons are paid a lot of money because they run the risk of sadly not being able to save someone on the table. It is also why tower climbers should always be covered by a high amount of insurance, to protect them for any potential health costs and to help them live for the rest of their lives if they cannot work again. However, this money can never be enough to cover the loss of a loved one.
There are many calls within the tower climbing industry to make conditions safer for those that are risking their lives to give us good electrical signals. Some suggestions about how to make tower climbing safer is to bring in further regulations about what sort of qualifications new tower climbers will need to have in order to practice tower climbing safety. It has been stated that the deaths this year and last were totally preventable, making them even more tragic. However, it is becoming more and more difficult to accurately follow which tower climbers have the correct training and experience and unfortunately, there really is nothing like actually climbing a tower to make you a better tower climber. It is a bit like pole vaulting: at some point, you simply have to take a deep breath, and start running.