By Kim Krisberg
Wally Reardon stopped climbing towers for a living back in 2002 due to an injury. He had spent years putting up communication antennas anywhere employers wanted them — smokestacks, buildings, grain silos, water tanks. Just about anything that rose up into the sky, Reardon would find a way to scale it. It was exhilarating.
“I can’t explain that freedom that we felt,” Reardon told me. “I just liked the adventure of climbing towers. I just totally loved it. It was a crazy lifestyle and we were like a bunch of nomads. We lived by our own rules.”
It was also dangerous. In fact, Reardon and his fellow tower climbers made their living doing one of the most dangerous jobs in the country. Since 2003, about 100 climbers have lost their lives scaling communication towers. Half of those workers died working on cellular service sites, according to a ProPublica and PBS Frontline broadcast that aired last week. The two news organizations calculate that between 2003 and 2010, the tower industry had an average fatality rate of 123.6 per 100,000 workers — more than 10 times greater than the fatality rate in the construction industry.
“I had a lot of injuries over the years, but never sought medical help for them because it meant I’d be taken out of the field, so I went back to work hurt,” Reardon remembers. “I was kind of naive. I had this feeling that if something happened to me, my family would be taken care of — that if they put me in a situation that got me killed, there’d be some sort of justice. A lot of my co-workers talked about these things. Sometimes we’d do jobs and think ‘how did we just survive that?'”
Today, Reardon is an outspoken advocate for tower climbers’ safety and co-founder of the Workers at Heights Safety and Health Initiative, which is housed at the Occupational Health Clinical Centers (OHCC) in Syracuse, N.Y. Among its efforts to elevate and enforce worker safety standards, the initiative is working to make sure climbers’ voices are included in industry conversations about safety.
“Despite a lot of verbiage from contractors and (cell phone) carriers that safety is No. 1, in reality there are certainly gaps in practices and tremendous pressures on workers to get these jobs done and get them done at a pace that forces workers to make shortcuts,” said Patricia Rector, director of outreach and education at OHCC and advisor to the Workers at Heights Initiative. “Their lives are literally hanging in the balance.”
Cell phones are everywhere. They’re so ubiquitous that we can hardly imagine getting along without them anymore. For the cell phone carriers, it’s a fierce race to see who can offer the most coverage at the lowest price. It means expanding their cellular networks as fast as possible. And that’s a lot of pressure for tower climbers, who are so far down the chain of command that they have little, if any, chance to voice safety concerns.
Climbers’ scale towers that are hundreds, or even thousands, of feet off the ground, making repairs, affixing antennas and doing routine maintenance. Many are also involved in the work of erecting towers. Climbers travel often and long distances, going where the growing network takes them. To stay safe, Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules dictate that workers be tied to the structures they’re climbing 100 percent of the time, but Reardon routinely documents workers “free-climbing,” or going without required safety equipment.
Reardon said that when he was climbing he often found it “next to impossible” to be in compliance and meet employers’ quick turnaround expectations. When free-climbing, Reardon said it took about two days or so to get a job done; when staying tied to the structure and wearing heavy safety equipment, the same job could take five to seven days. It’s a dangerous climbing technique that Reardon said he still sees happening.
“The (employer) says ‘you’ll be done at the end of the day, right?’ So what do you tell them,” Reardon asked. “You start pushing and pushing and everybody’s free-climbing. It’s proliferating the problem of guys falling.”
Adding to the problem is that holding anyone accountable for safety gaps that result in death and injury is a bit of a shell game. One source interviewed on the ProPublica/Frontline broadcast likened it to whack-a-mole: OSHA can go after one subcontractor for breaking safety rules and another one just pops up in its place. And the major cell phone carriers — the ones at the top of the hiring pyramid — avoid nearly all scrutiny. With so many layers of subcontracting between the carrier and the tower climber, companies like AT&T aren’t even officially tied to the deaths. According to ProPublica/Frontline, looking up the major cell phone carriers in OSHA’s database of workplace accident investigations won’t yield one tower worker death.
Ryan Knutson and Liz Day describe other findings from the ProPublica/PBS investigation into climbers’ deaths:
We found that in accident after accident, deadly missteps often resulted because climbers were shoddily equipped or received little training before being sent up hundreds of feet. To satisfy demands from carriers or large contractors, tower hands sometimes worked overnight or in dangerous conditions.
One carrier, AT&T, had more fatalities on its jobs than its three closest competitors combined, our reporting revealed. Fifteen climbers died on jobs for AT&T since 2003. Over the same period, five climbers died on T-Mobile jobs, two died on Verizon jobs and one died on a job for Sprint.
The death toll peaked between 2006 and 2008, as AT&T merged its network with Cingular’s and scrambled to handle traffic generated by the iPhone. Eleven climbers died on AT&T jobs in those three years.
According to Rector, the buffer between carrier and climber has to change.
“There needs to be mechanisms of accountability for the carriers at the top of the food chain,” Rector told me. “It’s an old story — the shell game that’s played on workers through subcontracting that prevents holding accountable those that should be held most accountable. So long as carriers can treat the loss of human life as a cost of doing business then workers will continue to pay the price with their lives.”
Calling for change
Enforcing worker safety rules already on the books would be a good start, Reardon said, adding that if “climbers are being slowed down that much by being in compliance, then someone needs to think of a better way to do the job.” But better enforcement is only the beginning.
“I think it’s too easy to say that all we need is more regulations and more inspectors, although we probably do,” Rector said. “Workers needs to be included in conversations about safety in this industry, included as active participants and really be respected as stakeholders. We think things could be so much safer if workers were more seriously integrated into the safety conversation…because the smallest misstep taken at 200 feet has catastrophic consequences.”
Right now, there seems to be no level playing field when it comes to safety or accountability — there’s so much competition to keep costs low and win the subcontracting bid that corners are being cut, said Dale Remington, a former climber who’s now retired. Remington’s son, Dirk, was a climber too. He lost his life on a tower site on Dec. 14, 2009, at 2:45 p.m. in Schuyler County, N.Y., at age 46.
Dirk was about 50 feet from the ground replacing guy-wires — cables that hold the structure upright and stable — when the tower collapsed, pinning Dirk inside it. The tower came down “like an accordion, a house of cards — that’s what killed my son,” Remington told me. Remington said he believes an inexperienced supervisor and the rush to get the job done both contributed to his son’s death.
“OSHA needs to get more involved,” Remington said. “There has to be a fear of losing money or else the people at the top just kind of turn a blind eye. To have an industry that has 10 times the deaths of an associated industry — there’s something really, really wrong here.”
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for a decade.