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The Deadly Business of Climbing Cell Towers
Posted on May 23, 2012
By Ryan Knutson, PBS Frontline and Liz Day, ProPublica
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.
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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.
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.
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