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 ChemistryHigh 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. 

Comments

  1. #1 Art
    January 16, 2014

    IMHO, the biggest obstacle to cell tower safety is subcontracting. The actual work done is done by subcontractors to a subcontractor. By the time the work get s down to the contract actually wiling to do the job the money has been squeezed out. Climbers typically make just a bit over minimum wage and low profit margins mean there is no money left for extra safety gear or safety training.

    To get people up a tower for minimum wage you convince potential employees that the job is easy, not more complicated or dangerous than climbing a tree in your back yard, and act as if you are doing the potential employee a favor. The end result is happy-go-luck people convinced that safety is just a matter of common sense with an intention of enjoying the view and ‘freedom’ ; getting paid for a job they would do for free.

    Proper safety gear, a sober professional attitude, and a dedication to the boring formalities of safe practice all get swept away in the ‘aww-shucks’ , ‘getter-done’, can-do enthusiasm necessary to get poorly paid and trained people to do a dangerous job.

  2. #2 Katatonic
    January 17, 2014

    Even among traditional ROBCs and other telcos, safety is taking a back seat to productivity more and more. I started in the industry in 1988 when monthly safety meetings were mandatory AND participatory plus extensive yearly coverage on topics like working aloft and lead/asbestos exposure. These days, not so much, and it’s being reflected in rising incidents. The company I started with has changed hands 4 times in the intervening 25 years and every new owner seems less concerned for workers, much less actual paying customers. It’s all about the bottom line. The growing use of contractors simply moves the onus for worker safety to smaller, less-able-to-comply companies that disappear after tragedies.

  3. #3 G
    January 18, 2014

    Katatonic is right on target.

    I’ve been in the telecoms industry for 30 years, so this is another “expert opinion” comment.

    What absolutely INFURIATES me about these incidents, is that they are the outcome of a huge step backward in the entire industry, that did not have to happen. Unnecessary gratuitous death and disability for the sake of nothing.

    These things did NOT occur under the old unified Bell Telephone System. Bell was absolutely fanatical about safety, because they were 100% responsible for their own network and their own employees. Bell assumed that every person they hired would be an employee for life, invested in their workforce accordingly, and did not want to lose people for any reason. Bell employees were all on union contracts at good middle-class wages, and the unions could be tough as nails when they needed to be. Managers typically worked their way up from entry-level, so they knew what the real world was like, including outside plant (climbing telephone poles).

    Remember the days when your phone always worked, and the audio was crisp and clear? That was the natural result of smart engineering, smart regulation, smart company policies, and smart workers who were properly trained. Is it funny or is it just downright tragic that we look back today on the “good old days” when your phone “always worked”…?

    We had the world’s most reliable communication system. It was the most complex machine ever built by the hands of humans, and it was as near to perfect as anything less than the work of nature itself. Then we deliberately smashed the whole thing to smithereens, for the sake of having shiny new baubles and toys. Just like a spoiled kid who wrecks his car in order to get a newer flashier model. But the shiny new baubles are basically crap: the audio on cellphones is equivalent to landlines from 1934 (that’s nineteen-thirty-four, and I can prove it), they don’t work in power outages, and they are vulnerable to malware that can turn them into audio/video/location spying devices.

    The cost of the shiny baubles can be measured every time someone tries to dial 911 on a mobile device and takes a half hour to get through; and every time an outside plant worker falls to his or her death from a tower. That’s a real cost in human lives. For the sake of shiny baubles.

  4. […] to raise safety concerns with their employers for the fear of being blacklisted from future jobs. Wally Reardon, project coordinator for the Workers at Heights Safety and Health Initiative (affiliated with the […]