Cell Phone Tower Climbers Face High Fatality Rates

Cell phones have become an indispensable gadget for most people, but new research is questioning, at what cost?

PBS’ Frontline recently examined records from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s database of workplace accident investigations. The findings were staggering.

The research uncovered that the death rate for tower climbers since 2003 has been approximately 10 times higher than the fatality rate for construction accidents.

From 2003 to 2011, more than half of the deaths on communication towers were individuals working on cell phone towers.

Researchers have identified a number of factors that might increase the likelihood of a deadly fall for cell phone tower climbers, including insufficient training, defective or misused equipment and time pressure.

Compounding the problem is the fact that cell phone carriers typically outsource tower work to subcontractors, who may then hire other subcontractors to climb the towers. As the relationship between the workers and cell phone providers becomes more remote, oversight decreases and accidents are more likely to occur.

Frontline’s research determined certain carriers have more accidents than others.

For instance, AT&T has had more deaths on its jobs than the combined fatalities of its three closest competitors. Some attribute AT&T’s high fatality rate to its practice of hiring “turf vendors,” or large construction management firms that subcontract climbing work to smaller companies. The death rate for workers on AT&T jobs peaked in 2008, after its exclusive introduction of the iPhone. When cell phone users began experiencing problems with dropped calls, AT&T increased its efforts to improve reception resulting in a spike in fatalities. In April 2008, two tower climbers died on AT&T jobs within five days.

Comparatively, Verizon, which hires subcontractors directly and typically works with the same companies, has had significantly fewer fatalities.

While the death rate decreased between 2009 and 2011, with only nine fatalities on cell phone tower projects during that time, workers are concerned that fatalities may increase with the push to establish 4G LTE networks, as few changes have been made to the subcontracting system since 2008.

Source: PBS Frontline, “In Race for Better Cell Service, Men Who Climb Towers Pay With Their Lives,” Ryan Knutson and Liz Day, May 22, 2012.