Subcontracted cell tower climbers are dying in large numbers in order to build better cell service for the public --- a risky, high-pressure job that is necessary to expand America's cellular infrastructure.
Cell tower climbers are dying at ten times the rate of construction workers. PBS Frontline says , “People don’t understand what the danger is to tower climbing,” former climber Robert Hale says in the Frontline film. “One person drops a wrench, it’ll kill somebody.”
Untrained cell tower climbers work at the most dangerous job in the nation, climbing 400-foot high AT&T towers that usually involves numerous layers of subcontractors. In a field with under 10,000 tower climbers, about 100 climbers have died with over half working on cell sites. In about five weeks, six cell tower climbers fell to their death --- three were on AT&T towers.
According to ProPublica, between 2003 and 2011, 50 climbers died working on cell sites, more than half of the nearly 100 who were killed on communications towers.
The United States has more active cell phones than people. According to CNN Money, a problem developed when AT&T began to develop a reputation for dropped calls, unacceptable once they became the sole carrier for the iPhone.
Subcontractors became the answer for not only AT&T, Verizon and numerous tower industries, but also service industries, retail, logistics and health care. Building new towers and installing new antennas by AT&T and other tower subcontractors continues to bring 3G networking to striving U.S. markets. But for better cell service and faster video and online games, tower climbers are losing their lives.
The problem seems to lie with subcontractors often contract out jobs to other subcontractors. Jobs are passed from one company to the next, with less ability to control the workers. Many subcontractors are not approved, but OSHA reports that there is "a pattern whereby AT&T had significantly more deaths on towers that they were owning or renting than the other carriers."
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,” said Mark Hein, who has worked for several turf vendors as a construction manager. Many of the climbers lacked training certificates.
“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. 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.
To prepare for the iPhone 3G's introduction, AT&T poured millions of dollars in the summer of 2008 for its wireless expenditures. This meant an unprecedented scale of untrained tower climbers. OSHA considers cell tower climbers the most dangerous job in America.
“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.”
Meanwhile, the building boom is continuously accompanied by one fall after another. On May 25, 2012, Plano, Texas-based Goodman Networks sent out a bulletin notifying workers of a mandatory safety stand down.