Dec 10, 2013
The Deadly Business of Climbing Cell Towers
Posted on May 23, 2012
By Ryan Knutson, PBS Frontline and Liz Day, ProPublica
“I want to be able to not worry about my guys not coming home,” he said. Throughout the industry, companies are choosing between safety and staying in business, he added. “If we’re not properly maintained or trained, then people will die. It’s only a matter of time.”
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The worst years for cell site fatalities in the last decade were 2006 and 2008.
There is no way to correlate these figures with workloads or to compare one carrier’s tower work to another’s because such information is proprietary. As of mid-2011, the four major carriers had varying numbers of cell sites: Verizon had 44,250, T-Mobile had 50,143, AT&T had 56,070 and Sprint had 67,500, according to data from US Wireless 411, a report by UBS.
In 2006, when the bulk of this work was done, 10 climbers died on cell site projects, including four on jobs for AT&T within two months.
William “Bubba” Cotton, 43, was the first, crushed to death on March 10 when a rope snapped, dropping a 50-pound antenna on him. According to OSHA documents and court records, the accident occurred as two crews 2013 one aloft and one on the ground 2013 rushed to complete work on a tower in Talladega, Ala., before an upcoming NASCAR race. AT&T would not extend the deadline for the job despite a request from a crew leader, two workers testified in sworn depositions. (The company declined to comment on the case.)
The pressure ratcheted up again when AT&T became the exclusive carrier for the iPhone.
After the phone debuted in summer 2007, triggering a tsunami of data usage, customers began complaining about dropped calls and spotty service. According to a report in Wired, AT&T went to Apple, asking for help in limiting traffic to buy time for tower upgrades. Instead, Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs explored switching to Verizon, the report said.
To prepare for the iPhone 3G’s introduction in summer 2008, AT&T poured billions of dollars into wireless capital expenditures. The push meant work on an unprecedented scale for tower climbers.
“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.”
The building boom was accompanied by a string of accidents.
After two climbers died on AT&T jobs within a five-day period in April 2008, the carrier sent a letter to turf vendors calling for a construction stand down to discuss safety procedures and hold half-day courses to retrain workers.
But Guilford died just three and a half weeks after the work stoppage. Two more climbers died on AT&T jobs within the next four months.
AT&T would not answer questions about the stand down. In its statement, the carrier said that fatalities have decreased in the years since the stand down, aided by a safety initiative by OSHA and the tower industry.
Craig Lekutis 2013 the founder of WirelessEstimator.com, a trade publication for the tower climbing industry 2013 said the stand down turned out to be “more lip service” and not a long-term commitment.
Lekutis has tracked tower fatalities since 2004 and memorializes each lost climber on his website.
“Sadly, the major players know it’s happening and know that they are contributors to it,” he said, “but they don’t do anything.”
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Tower-climbing fatalities have dropped considerably since the end of 2008.
Nine climbers died on cell site projects between 2009 and 2011, less than half as many as in the three previous years. There has been only one fatality on an AT&T job since 2009. Ethan “Little Britches” Hutchinson, 18, died in May 2010 after falling from a tower in Arkansas when his safety gear malfunctioned.
Some in the industry point to improved safety practices to explain the smaller death toll. Others say the recession cut into the volume of tower work and that, after finishing 3G upgrades, much of what carriers needed could be done on the ground.
With the next big push—building out 4G LTE networks—just getting underway in major markets, some veteran climbers worry that the fatality numbers will rise again.
“If not this year, another bad year is going to come,” said Reardon, the tower industry veteran. “It’s all about trying to do things faster and cheaper.”
The subcontracting system remains much as it was during the worst years, climbers say.
There are also many young men like Jay Guilford, with few prospects and no experience, willing to climb towers if it means a steady paycheck.
Years later, the horror of Guilford’s death remains fresh to Pierce, who was engaged to him at the time. She remembers receiving the phone call from his father as she arrived home from shopping for an upcoming trip to Disney World.
“I freaked out and screamed and just screamed and screamed,” she said.
Yet, about a year and a half later, when her current boyfriend was out of work, Pierce approached Phoenix of Tennessee to ask if he could apply to be a tower climber.
In retrospect, she regretted doing so, she said, but it was the only company she knew that had work. Ultimately, he found a job at Jack in the Box.
Guilford’s stepbrother, Anthony Acker, also sometimes works as a tower climber. The family tried to talk him out of returning to it about a year ago.
“He said, ‘Don’t worry about me, old man, I’m being careful,’ ” said Gary Hart, Acker’s father and Guilford’s stepfather. “I just hope it all works out for him because I don’t want to go through all this again.”
Coming next: How OSHA has struggled to police this dangerous industry.
Travis Fox of PBS “Frontline,” Robin Respaut and Kirsten Berg of ProPublica and Habiba Nosheen contributed to this report.
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