- Tower climbing has a death rate roughly 10 times that of the construction industry.
- Cell carriers outsourcing tower work contribute indirectly to tower climber fatalities.
- Over half of tower climber deaths were linked to cell site projects.
- Equipment inadequacy and insufficient training are significant contributing factors.
- Steps are being taken to improve safety measures and regulations, but more work is needed.
The Unseen Risks of Tower Climbing
Tower climbing is an often-overlooked field, yet it is critically important. After all, it is the efforts of these brave men and women that ensure our cellphones and radios function properly, connecting us to our loved ones and the world at large. However, the tower climbing industry faces a disturbing and urgent problem: an unusually high mortality rate.
In the last decade, nearly 100 tower climbers have tragically lost their lives on the job. What’s even more concerning is that over half of these fatalities were linked to work on cell sites. The drive for constant connectivity and mobile convenience has, unfortunately, led to an increase in tower climbing fatalities. The problem is made worse by outsourcing practices common among cell carriers, making it harder to enforce safety standards and practices.
The Hazards of the Trade
Until the cell phone boom of the 1990s, most tower work involved radio and television towers, which can reach over 1000 feet in height. As cell service demand increased, the volume and pace of tower work surged. Carriers, eager to expand their services to even the most remote areas, relied heavily on tower climbers to install new antennas and perform upgrades.
This shift transformed the tower climbing industry, attracting newcomers unprepared for the high-risk nature of the work and adding to the industry’s transient, high-stakes culture. Tower climbers often found themselves moving from state to state, living in motel rooms, and working on different towers each day. The increase in workload, combined with a high-pressure work environment, contributed to safety shortcuts and, subsequently, higher death rates.
Tower climbers, often working overnight and in dangerous conditions to meet carrier demands, frequently resorted to a technique called free-climbing, moving without attaching safety harnesses to the tower to save time. This practice, strictly prohibited by safety regulations, was involved in over half of tower fatalities investigated.
The Outsourcing Dilemma
Cell carriers typically outsource tower work to subcontractors for various reasons, one being that maintaining and building towers isn’t part of their core business. However, this practice has created a disconnection between the carriers and the subcontractors, making it difficult to enforce safety standards and regulations uniformly. Despite this disconnect, subcontractors continue to bear the brunt of the risks associated with tower work.
An investigation by ProPublica and PBS “Frontline” revealed that AT&T had more fatalities on its projects than its three closest competitors combined. These deaths spiked between 2006 and 2008 when AT&T merged with Cingular and struggled to keep up with the traffic surge from the iPhone.
The Urgency of Safety Regulations
Despite the high-risk nature of tower climbing, the industry has seen a distressing trend of climbers using less and less safety equipment. There are several reasons behind this: job layoffs, leading to the remaining climbers having to service the same number of towers; an unhealthy culture of peer pressure, and the prohibitive cost of safety equipment.
These issues underline the urgent need for stricter safety regulations and better enforcement of existing rules. Some believe that new tower climbers should be required to obtain specific qualifications that promote safety. Better tracking of climbers’ training and experience could help enforce such regulations and help reduce preventable accidents.
Tower Climbing: The Human Cost
The tower climbing industry has seen an unsettling rise in deaths in recent years. In 2013, the industry mourned 13 tower climbers killed on worksites, a number higher than the combined death toll for 2011 and 2012. By May 2014, four more tower climbers had tragically lost their lives.
While most of these deaths resulted from falls, other fatalities occurred when towers collapsed, leading to additional casualties among those attempting rescue operations. For tower climbers, the risk of fatality is estimated to be thirty times higher than that of the average American worker.
Is the Risk Worth the Reward?
For many tower climbers, the thrill of the job and the substantial pay, which can reach around $50,000 a year, make it an attractive career. However, the high death rate raises the question: is the risk worth the reward?
In the wake of the escalating death toll, calls for improved safety measures and regulations are growing louder. While tower climbers do have access to insurance to cover potential health costs and provide for their futures in case they can no longer work, no amount of money can compensate for the loss of a loved one. The industry must strive to ensure that every tower climber who leaves for work in the morning returns home safely at the end of the day.
As our society’s demand for connectivity continues to grow, so too does the need for the vital work of tower climbers. However, the high death rate among these unsung heroes of the digital age is a troubling issue that needs immediate attention. Through improved safety regulations, better enforcement, and a change in industry culture, we can hopefully reduce the number of lives lost in this critical line of work.
Until then, it’s important that we acknowledge the sacrifices of these brave individuals and the vital role they play in our interconnected world. As we benefit from our digital devices, we must remember the human cost and work towards making the industry safer for tower climbers.