When Cell Tower Workers Die, OSHA Now Tracks Which Telecom Sent Them Up

Almost two years ago, ProPublica and Frontline investigated the deaths of tower climbers, the brave souls who scale cell towers so that we can make emergency phone calls on the highway and stream Netflix in our dentists’ waiting rooms. Nineteen climbers have died on the job since the beginning of 2013, and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is paying close attention.

The people scaling towers for mobile carriers aren’t employees of those companies. Work on towers goes to subcontractors, distancing mobile carriers legal responsibility and from public outrage when accidents happens. Since the original report from ProPublica and Frontline in 2012, a lot of cell tower climbers have died.

The letter that Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health David Michaels sent to companies in the tower industry is pretty blunt, as letters from federal agencies go. He notes that OSHA investigations have shown that many of these deaths were because of a “lack of fall protection,” meaning that they were preventable if employers had provided protective gear and trained employees in its use. The result is pretty grim. “As a result,” Michaels writes, “communication tower climbers are falling to their deaths.”

There are reasons why subcontractors might be cutting safety corners and in a hurry. Companies spent 2013 upgrading their networks. Our tipline has been full of complaints from Sprint and Virgin Mobile (which uses the Sprint network) customers about promised upgrades and poor coverage.

As part of its investigations, OSHA now says that they will obtain copies of contracts, so they can follow the chain of contractors and subcontractors back to the telecommunications company that is ultimately responsible for sending workers up the tower. That’s good, but it’s disheartening that they weren’t doing this in the first place when accidents happen in such a dangerous line of work.

Feds to Look Harder at Cell Carriers When Tower Climbers Die [ProPublica]
Communication Towers [OSHA]
Letter to Communication Tower Industry Employers [OSHA]