In 2012, a Frontline and Pro Publica investigation of the cell (or wireless) tower industry found that between 2003 and 2010 the average fatality rate for the US tower industry was more than 10 times greater than that of the construction industry. A January 6, 2014 story by KUOW reporter John Ryan about the death in January 2013 of tower climber Mike Rongey in Mount Vernon, Washington is a reminder that the industry remains extremely dangerous. It is also a reminder that the employers of the workers killed in these incidents may only be fined minimally and that the wireless service providers generating the work are rarely – if ever – cited for these accidents. In Mike Rongey’s case, the state has levied a penalty of $450 against the company that employed him.
According to the Wireless Estimator, a website that tracks communications tower industry news, in 2013, thirteen US cell tower workers died on the job. Add to these deaths the most recent such incident reported by the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA): On November 22, 2013, a maintenance worker died in a fall from a communication tower in North Witchita, Kansas. Cell tower worker fatalities cited by the Wireless Estimator occurred all across the country, in Indiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Virginia and Washington. Most of these cases are still under federal OSHA or state investigation so full incident detail and penalty information is not yet available. However, in November OSHA issued a memorandum for its regional administrators calling the past few months’ rate of injury and fatalities in the cell tower industry “alarming.” The number of such incidents in 2013, OSHA noted in the memo, was more than the previous two years combined.
Mike Rongey’s employer, WS Consulting & Construction, has been fined $450 for violation of telecommunications industry general safety rules, specifically for violating fall protection standards – that is, not providing proper fall protection, explained Washington Department of Labor and Industries spokesperson Elaine Fischer.The penalty amount, Fischer explained, is calculated based not only on the type of violation involved, but also on the number of employees the company has, how many employees were exposed to the hazard that caused the injury or fatality, and the employer’s history of violations. That the incident caused a worker’s death does not determine the size of the fine, she explained. In Mike Rongey’s case, his employer is a very small company, and only one employee – Rongey – was exposed to the hazard, Fischer said. What caused the fall was equipment that was improperly installed not by WS Consulting & Construction, but by another company that is, according to Fischer, no longer in business. And neither Rongey’s employer nor the company that installed the faulty equipment owns or manages that cell tower or uses it to broadcast wireless signals.
A multi-layered industry
How the layers of contractors and subcontractors affect cell tower workers’ safety is of major concern to Wally Reardon, project coordinator for the Workers at Heights Safety and Health Initiative affiliated with the Occupational Health Clinical Center in Syracuse, New York. As Reardon explains, the carrier – in the case of the tower where Mike Rongey fell – might be Clearwire, which is now part of Sprint, or a company like AT&T, T-Mobile or Verizon. The company that owns the tower might also be a cellular service provider or telecommunications company such as Cox Communications, Time Warner or US Cellular. There are also companies that specialize in operating, building and leasing towers, as do Crown Castle (which owns the Mount Vernon, WA tower where Rongey fell), American Tower and SBA Communications, among many others.
In addition to complex layers of ownership, other companies, known in the industry as “turfers,” may be involved in managing these jobs. Turfers such as Bechtel and General Dynamics might hire other companies to do work in particular “market” or city, Reardon explains. If that company has too much work to complete on schedule, it might then subcontract out some of that work to another local company. The use of temporary workers to fill positions because of demands to upgrade infrastructure also adds to these layers, he noted.
This concern was also voiced by OSHA in its November 2013 memo in which OSHA said it “is aware that there has been an acceleration in communication tower work during the past year due to cellular infrastructure upgrades, and the Agency is concerned about the possibility of future incidents.”
There are rigorous safety standards for all aspects of cell tower work, as there are for tower construction and engineering, Reardon explained. There are also safety checklists and procedures that workers are required to follow – but under the pressure to meet job deadlines, follow-through can be lacking, he said.
Exacerbating these issues in Reardon’s opinion is the lack of organized support for tower workers, most of whom are not represented by labor unions. Tower workers are often reluctant to raise safety issues with their bosses, he said, for fear of being “blacklisted” or not hired for future jobs. If companies throughout the cell tower supply-chain, particularly the large companies with large assets and brands, could be held accountable that “would improve safety 100 percent,” said Reardon.
OSHA does have the ability under certain circumstances to use its “Multi-Employer” policy in citing companies for health and safety violations. But as Deputy Assistant Labor Secretary Jordan Barab explained to Frontline in 2012, it’s generally used only when the companies have employees working on the site where the violations occurred. Asked on January 9, 2014, OSHA was not able to respond to The Pump Handle by deadline to say if it had progressed in addressing the issues related to multiple companies’ involvement in cell towers and the responsibility for the safety of work on the towers.
Washington State’s Department of Labor and Industries spokeswoman Elaine Fischer said that a hearing on Mike Rongey’s case was expected to begin the week of January 13th and that Washington State is “preparing to adopt new cell tower specific regulations” that she expects will be released in 2014. Only two states, Michigan and North Carolina, currently have cell tower specific safety regulations. Among the issues the Washington regulations are expected to address are those related to multiple company responsibility, thermal radiation and self-rescue – the last being of particular concern to cell tower workers in remote locations.
The annual number of US cell tower worker deaths appears to be declining since 2006, when 19 workers died. But that more than a dozen cell tower workers died from work-related injuries in 2013, when OSHA records 31 accidents and 267 violations in its 285 recorded inspections in the industry, suggests that safety improvement is badly needed.
Meanwhile, the company cited in Mike Rongey’s death is contesting the $450 penalty.
[UPDATE 1/17/14: On January 17, 2014 an OSHA spokesperson sent the following statement: "OSHA is aware of the very serious nature of the hazards in communications tower work and conducts inspections in this industry. Among other activities, the agency has been gathering data on the 14 fatalities that occurred in 2013, including information on the contractual relationships associated with the activities in which a worker was killed." OSHA also referred to its memo cited above and said, "Under the OSH Act, employers may be responsible for hazards to their subcontractor’s employees if they maintained sufficient control over the work or worksites of those subcontractors. OSHA is committed to increasing its outreach and enforcement efforts in order to prevent further fatalities and injuries, and will continue to work to address the safety of cell tower workers."]
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Ensia, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.