As the race to provide better cellphone coverage heats up, major providers such as Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile have reacted to growth pressure by subcontracting more cell tower work throughout the country to keep up with the demand. Unfortunately this has also led to an increase in worker deaths and that has attracted the attention of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
While worker fatalities in all categories were down this year, cell tower climber deaths have risen. So far in 2013, 10 workers have died due to falls from cell towers and three have been seriously injured. Before this year, the wireless construction industry was faring better, with only one fatality in 2012 and seven in 2011. This was a far cry from the industry’s deadliest year in 2006, when 18 tower workers died, prompting OSHA to declare tower climbing “the most dangerous job in America.”
The PBS television show Frontline brought attention to the number of cell tower deaths in 2012. They reported that accidents often resulted because cell tower climbers were poorly equipped or did not receive adequate training before putting in long hours climbing up hundreds of feet to replace antennas and perform general maintenance to satisfy the needs of wireless carriers or large contractors. In looking at OSHA data from 2003 to 2011, ProPublica and Frontline determined that the fatality rate for a cell tower climber was more than 10 times greater than that of the average construction worker.
In a May 2012 interview, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor Jordan Barab said, “Happily, you don’t see a lot of fatalities there. There are usually 10 or fewer per year. But nevertheless, when you figure out the rates by how many people are actually working in the profession, you find that this is a very high rate. It’s a very dangerous occupation.”
This year’s increase in cell phone worker fatalities has prompted a broader OSHA response. In an August Wall Street Journal article, reporter Ryan Knutson wrote that OSHA is investigating the incidents, including the role of the wireless carriers, and looking at new ways of policing the tower-climbing business. OSHA had not previously scrutinized the role of carriers because tower workers are employed through specialized contractors and subcontractors. Since the carrier doesn’t have employees at the site of the accident, responsibility is difficult to establish.
Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, told the Wall Street Journal, “OSHA is taking a close look into factors that may be responsible for this tragic increase in fatalities and, based on those findings, we will initiate additional measures to improve safety in the cell-tower industry.” He added that one measure would be to explore whether increased deadline pressure to quickly build and service more towers has also become a contributing factor in worker fatalities.
While carriers require their subcontractors to enforce safety practices, climbers have said that responsibility for safety ultimately rests on each worker. Safety harnesses are essential, but constantly attaching and reattaching them can slow tower climbers down. Since carriers often set pricing and maintenance schedules that reward speed, this can lead to unsafe practices, creating another opportunity for deadly error.
In May, for example, one of three major contractors managing Sprint’s tower construction instituted a program that pays contractors a $3,000 bonus for finishing a site on time and with no defects. Although a company spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal that the program stresses quality so that workers don’t have to go back up the tower and put themselves at additional risk, it is easy to see how the time element can play a role in encouraging workers to take unnecessary risks when it comes to their safety.