Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


ProPublica

cell-tower

(Photo: Gary Lerude/Flickr)

OSHA Takes a Closer Look at the Most Dangerous Job in America

• April 07, 2014 • 2:00 PM

(Photo: Gary Lerude/Flickr)

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration will systematically track who subcontractors were working for when accidents occur on cell tower sites.

In a two-week span last August, four workers died from falls on cell towers scattered across the country. Before the year ended, another worker had plummeted to his death, this time in Kansas.

Then, in early February, two workers were killed and two more were hospitalized when two cell towers collapsed in West Virginia.

Spurred by a drumbeat of deadly accidents, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is changing how it investigates and assigns responsibility for injuries to tower climbers, the workers who build and maintain America’s cell phone networks.

Tower climbing, a small field of roughly 10,000 workers, has been called the most dangerous job in America. And as ProPublica and Frontline reported in 2012, cell phone carriers and tower owners have insulated themselves from legal and regulatory liability for on-the-job injuries by delegating this work to layers of subcontractors.

Now, for the first time, OSHA is systematically tracking which companies subcontractors were working for when accidents occurred, collecting paperwork that spells out such relationships. In a letter sent in February to industry employers and state wireless associations, the agency criticized “check the box” language written into contracts that doesn’t set out clear standards for safety.

OSHA’s chief administrator has insisted that carriers and tower owners must take more responsibility for safety.

“It’s really incumbent on them that safety provisions are absolutely implemented,” OSHA director David Michaels said in an interview. “Safety can’t just be pawned off on the final contractor.”

In a statement, Sprint said that the safety of everyone who works on its network is a top priority and that the cell carrier requires contractors to have one person at every job site who is responsible for making sure safety programs are being followed.

There have been 19 climber deaths in communications tower accidents since the start of 2013, a fatality rate Michaels called “clearly unacceptable” in a videotaped address to a tower industry conference in February.

The latest came just last week, when two workers died while dismantling a Union Pacific telecommunications tower, according to a company spokesman. The week before, Chad Weller, 21, died after falling 180 feet from a Sprint cell site atop a water tower in Pasadena, Maryland, according to a local fire official.

OSHA’s recent moves supplement those made last November, when the agency instructed employees to inspect any active tower worksites they see. This was meant to address another chronic hurdle to safety enforcement: Tower sites are harder for OSHA to check randomly than factories or other construction sites because work often occurs in short bursts, rather than over weeks or months.

The rise in fatalities that began in 2013 reflected, in part, the breakneck pace of work to upgrade and expand cell networks.

“I can’t tell you a year I remember that was as busy as 2013,” said Victor Guerrero, a telecom consultant who has been in the industry since 1998.

In particular, Sprint was in the midst of Network Vision, a multibillion-dollar project to unify its network architecture and expand its 4G LTE footprint that Chief Executive Dan Hesse characterized as a “complete rip and replace of the entire network.”

Four workers suffered fatal accidents on Sprint’s cell sites in 2013. One, Michael Frontiero Cortes, 41, fell nearly 200 feet to his death while performing maintenance on a satellite dish on a Maryland cell tower in July, according to OSHA. He’d started climbing earlier that year to support his four children, his mother said.

Veteran climber John Dailey loved the expansive views offered by tall towers and that his work helped people keep in touch with one another. The 49-year-old slipped and fell during an August installation on a Sprint cell site beside a North Carolina highway.

Dailey’s sister, Tabetha DuPriest, has started a letter-writing campaign with the non-profit Hubble Foundation to get the attention of cell carriers.

In a statement, Sprint said that the safety of everyone who works on its network is a top priority and that the cell carrier requires contractors to have one person at every job site who is responsible for making sure safety programs are being followed.

Overall, 13 climbers died working on communication towers in 2013, more than had died in the previous two years combined, OSHA data shows. All but two of the accidents were on cell or cell-related sites.

Workers have also suffered serious, but not fatal, harm in additional accidents.

A 50-foot fall from an AT&T cell site last June left novice climber Thomas Jeglum, 24, in a coma for months, according to his wife, Gina. In a statement, an AT&T spokesperson said the cell carrier requires tower contractors to comply with all safety laws and to fully train anyone working on AT&T projects.

So far, little is officially known about what caused many of the recent accidents because OSHA’s investigations are ongoing.

When ProPublica and Frontline examined 50 deaths on cell sites between 2003 and 2011, we found that workers were often poorly trained, improperly equipped or working under intense deadlines. To save time, they sometimes work without attaching their safety gear to the tower, leading to falls.

OSHA sometimes sanctioned subcontractors for safety violations connected to these cases, but never penalized cell carriers. The agency had not known that more climbers died on AT&T projects during this nine-year period than had died on projects for Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile combined.

Under Michaels’ leadership, the agency is taking steps to eliminate this gap in oversight.

“I think it’s profound that he wants to look at all entities from subcontractors to carriers and tower owners,”said Rob Medlock, who had specialized in tower safety during his 33 years at OSHA before retiring in 2010. “That’s been difficult for OSHA in the past.”

The recent uptick in accidents also has prompted some in the industry to rethink their approach to safety.

Sprint has announced it will work with PICS Auditing to check prospective contractors’ safety manuals, accident rates, and training programs before hiring them to work on its next large-scale cell network project. PICS Auditing has done similar work for clients in the oil and gas, mining, and construction industries.

PICS Auditing Chief Marketing Officer Jeffrey Muto said the company has also spoken with other carriers and tower management companies about reducing the risks of accidents on their cell sites.

Sprint said in a statement that it views the partnership as a proactive effort that the wireless industry should take.

OSHA’s David Michaels believes if the public knew about the dangers workers face making our cell phones work, it could spur change.

“If they were aware,” he said, “they may insist companies that provide them with that service make sure workers are safe.”


This post originally appeared on ProPublica as “Feds to Look Harder at Cell Carriers When Tower Climbers Die” and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Liz Day
Liz Day is ProPublica's director of research. Her work with PBS Frontline investigating the deaths of workers who build America’s cell tower network was nominated for an Emmy award for Outstanding Business and Economic Reporting, was a finalist for the Gerald Loeb Award for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism, and won a Best in Business award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.


November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


November 24 • 10:00 AM

Why Are Patients Drawn to Certain Doctors?

We look for an emotional fit between our physicians and ourselves—and right now, that’s the best we can do.


November 24 • 8:00 AM

Why Do We Elect Corrupt Politicians?

Voters, it seems, are willing to forgive—over and over again—dishonest yet beloved politicians if they think the job is still getting done.



November 24 • 6:00 AM

They Steal Babies, Don’t They?

Ethiopia, the Hague, and the rise and fall of international adoption. An exclusive investigation of internal U.S. State Department documents describing how humanitarian adoptions metastasized into a mini-industry shot through with fraud, becoming a source of income for unscrupulous orphanages, government officials, and shady operators—and was then reined back in through diplomacy, regulation, and a brand-new federal law.


November 24 • 4:00 AM

Nudging Drivers, and Pedestrians, Into Better Behavior

Daniel Pink’s new series, Crowd Control, premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel.


November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



Follow us


Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.