Based upon the latest national census of fatal occupational injuries from the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers who are required to climb cell towers and other communications structures throughout the country have been identified as having the most dangerous job in America. In previous years, inaccurate Occupational Health and Safety Administration coding and an unknown total of tower climbers prevented the tower erection and maintenance industry from revealing the most fatalities per 100,000 workers. Tower climbers are one of the smallest specialized construction groups with less than 10,000 employees nationwide.
OSHA, the National Institute of Safety and Health, and the communications construction industry universally agree that there are too many fatalities every year from workers falling from telecommunications towers. There has always been disagreement regarding the methods the federal agencies use to gauge the industry’s health. The majority of fatalities are the result of climbers not being tied off to a safe anchorage point at all times or relying upon faulty personal protection equipment. In addition, many deaths occurred during the erection, retrofitting or dismantling of a tower.
In April, five workers fell to their deaths from mobile phone towers in the space of 12 days. There was another death reported in May, the sixth this year. There were ten fatal falls from elevated structures of all kinds (including TV, electrical and water towers) in 2007, and a record 18 in 2006. But this year’s concentrated run of cell tower accidents is said to be extraordinary. The following, as recorded by Wireless Estimator, an online newsletter that covers the communications construction industry, is a list of known incidents over a period of six weeks involving a fall from a tower resulting in death:
- April 12th: A 34-year-old cell tower technician from Oklahoma died after falling 150 feet from monopole antenna in Wake Forest, Nor Carolina. It was the nation’s first death in 2008 of a communications worker falling from an elevated structure.
- April 14th: A tower worker employed by Cornerstone Tower of Grand Island, Neb., fell to his death in Moorcroft, Wyoming.
- April 15th: A 38-year-old technician finished tightening the bolts on a guyed wireless tower in San Antonio, Texas, “sort of lean[ed] back a little,” according to witnesses, and fell 225 feet to his death.
- April 17th: North Carolina suffered its second cell tower fatality in a week when a 46-year-old Chesapeake, Virginia, man fell from a communications antenna in Frisco, NC.
- April 23rd: A Griffin, Georgia, man died from extensive head and chest injuries after falling 100 feet from a communications tower near Natchez, MS. He was reportedly hanging boom gates to a Cell South antenna when he fell.
- May 16th: Jonathan Guilford, who was from Ft. Payne, Alabama, was rappelling down a load line attached to a 200 foot monopole when he stopped abruptly 140 feet up and bounced as if on a bungee cord, disengaging the carabiner that was secured to the tower. This was on an AT&T VMTS (3G) project in Indiana.
At least three of the six incidents occurred on AT&T projects. On May 21, AT&T issued a press release describing its $20 billion roll-out of a nationwide 3G network. It promised to have 275 of the markets it serves in the U.S. 3G-ready by the end of June, and to finish the remaining 75 by the end of the year. AT&T is the exclusive U.S. carrier for Apple’s iPhone. A new, 3G version of that device is widely expected to be released in June.
AT&T is continuing to bring 3G networking to new markets in the U.S. That will involve building new towers and installing new antennas. On April 21st, after the first two deaths on its projects, AT&T called for a construction stand down and issued an order to subcontractors that read, in part:
AT&T … requires you to hold, at a minimum, a half-day safety refresher training course this week with all of your construction employees and subcontractors providing services for AT&T. Upon completion of the safety refresher training this week, AT&T expects that you will reinforce this training with additional random safety checks at the construction sites to ensure that appropriate safety measures are being used.
If you would like more information relating to the above issues, you can contact Graham Esdale, who handles crane and tower cases for the firm, at 800-898-2034.