A recent investigation by the nonprofit news organization ProPublica revealed that between 2003 and 2011 an astounding 50 climbers working on cell phone sites were killed, and many more were injured. No government agency keeps statistics because these workers are employed by lightly regulated subcontractors, and even subcontractors of subcontractors. This is all deliberate policy, and ProPublica worked with TV producer Frontline to bring this information to public television in late May of 2012.
In 1990, the U.S. had 5000 cell phone towers. Today it has 280,000, many of which are being constantly maintained and upgraded. None of the people building and servicing cell towers are unionized, and none of them work directly for the cell carriers. The tower climbers work for subcontractors, usually for $10 or $11 an hour and sometimes paying for their own safety equipment, through paycheck deductions.
According to ProPublica, the major carriers "outsource this dangerous work to subcontractors, a practice increasingly common in risky businesses from coal mining to trucking to nuclear waste removal." But the investigators found OSHA records reveal that tower climbing has 10 times the fatalities of construction as a whole. OSHA administrator, Edwin Foulke, said at a 2008 industry conference that tower climbing "the most dangerous job in America."
But regulators have been remiss, failing to account for the scope of the problem. "If you look up the major cell carriers in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's database of workplace accident investigations," said the report, "you will not find a single tower climber fatality listed." Subcontractors were not associated with the carriers' cell tower work.
ProPublica found that the climbers were often badly equipped and poorly trained. Moreover, they were subjected to time pressure which negated whatever safety equipment and rules existed, often working overtime, overnight or in poor conditions.
Although safety equipment saves lives, "Time pressure often leads tower hands to use a technique called free-climbing, in which workers don't connect their safety harnesses to the tower... In more than half of the tower fatalities we examined, workers were free-climbing, even though government safety regulations strictly prohibit it."
Because there was no union, because government failed to gauge the scope of the problem, people have died and continue to die. But now we know one of the major, and hidden, costs of our cell phone service.
In Race For Better Cell Service, Men Who Climb Towers Pay With Their Lives (ProPublica, May 22, 2012)
Cell Tower Deaths (Frontline, May 22, 2012)
Remarks Prepared For Edwin G. Foulke, Jr. (OSHA, Feb. 13, 2008)