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In Race For Better Cell Service, Men Who Climb Towers Pay With Their Lives

An investigation into the poorly regulated and risky world of cell tower climbing.

| Tue Jun. 12, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

This story first appeared on the ProPublica website. This story was co-published with PBS Frontline.

In the spring of 2008, AT&T was racing to roll out a new cell phone network to deliver music, video and online games at faster speeds.

The network, known as 3G, was crucial to the company's fortunes. AT&T's cell service had been criticized by customers for its propensity to drop calls, a problem compounded when the company became the sole carrier for the iPhone.

Jay Guilford was a tiny but vital cog in the carrier's plans.

On a clear evening in May, Guilford was dangling, 150 feet in the air, from a cell tower in southwest Indiana. He had been sent aloft to take pictures of AT&T antennas soon to be replaced by 3G equipment.

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Work complete, Guilford sped his descent by rappelling on a rope. Safety standards required him to step down the metal pole, peg by peg, using a special line that would catch automatically if he fell. But tower climbing is a field in which such rules are routinely ignored.

"Bouncy, bouncy," Guilford, 25, called jovially to men on the ground.

Then, in an instant, the hook attaching the rope to the tower—broken and missing its safety latch—came loose. Guilford plummeted to the gravel below, landing feet first. The impact shattered his legs and burst his aorta. He bled to death in minutes.

Cell phones are our era's ubiquitous technology device. There are more active cell phones in the U.S. than people.

An investigation by ProPublica and PBS "Frontline" shows that the convenience of mobile phones has come at a hefty price: Between 2003 and 2011, 50 climbers died working on cell sites, more than half of the nearly 100 who were killed on communications towers.

Yet cell phone carriers' connection to tower climbing deaths has remained invisible. They outsource this dangerous work to subcontractors, a practice increasingly common in risky businesses from coal mining to trucking to nuclear waste removal. If you look up the major cell carriers in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's database of workplace accident investigations, you will not find a single tower climber fatality listed.

Guilford didn't work for AT&T—he worked for a subcontracting outfit affiliated with a bigger subcontractor hired by a construction management firm working for AT&T.

For each tower-related fatality since 2003, ProPublica and PBS "Frontline" traced the contracting chain from bottom to top, reviewing thousands of pages of government records and interviewing climbers, industry executives and labor experts.

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.

There are more active cell phones in the U.S. than people.

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, including Guilford.

"I don't think there's any question that the pressure to build out the network has been a contributing factor to fatalities," said Steve Watts, who worked as a risk manager at AT&T until 2007.

Current AT&T officials would not comment on the Guilford case and declined requests to be interviewed for this story, as did officials at the other major cell carriers.

In a written statement, AT&T said it required its contractors to follow safety regulations and that cell tower fatalities had decreased in recent years even as carriers have continued to make expensive improvements to their wireless networks. There were no fatalities on AT&T jobs last year, the statement noted.

"Worker safety has always been a hallmark of AT&T," the statement said.

The carrier and its construction management firm, General Dynamics, had no employees on site when Guilford died—only subcontractors. Neither was sanctioned in OSHA's investigation after the accident.

OSHA cited just one company for safety violations in the case: Nashville-based Phoenix of Tennessee, the parent company of All Around Towers, the subcontractor that had managed the climbing crew. Inspectors concluded that Phoenix of Tennessee had not removed broken equipment from the site or addressed unsafe work conditions in plain view. The company paid a fine of $2,500.

All Around Towers went out of business soon after the accident. Two of its owners, who started a new tower company called ETA Systems, declined to answer questions from ProPublica and PBS "Frontline."

Kyle Waites, the owner of Phoenix of Tennessee and part-owner of All Around Towers, said he sent climbers for retraining and purchased new safety equipment after Guilford's fall.

"Do I feel responsible to a degree? I think everybody does that was involved with it," Waites said. "What caused Jay's death was a chain of events that all could have, and should have, been prevented."

But Waites said that those off site, like himself, could only do so much to ensure climbers' safety—it had been up to All Around Towers, and Guilford himself, to follow the rules.

"Once you leave men alone, the men have to police themselves," he said.

Guilford left behind a fiancé, Bridget Pierce, and two young children, Emily, now 7, and Aidan, now 5.

Under policies provided by Phoenix of Tennessee, Pierce received $200,000 in life insurance, but was denied worker's compensation because an autopsy showed Guilford had recently smoked marijuana. Lawyers advised Pierce not to sue because of the drugs.

In her house on the outskirts of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Pierce keeps a framed picture of Guilford posing atop a cell tower. He's smiling, his fists pumping in the air. After years of moving furniture and delivering pizza, he had loved his $10-an-hour climbing job, she said.

Still, Pierce cannot escape the sense that Guilford had been a disposable part to the companies that rely on men like him to go up cell towers.

"It's like he didn't exist," she said. "They just pass the ball off to the next person. Everybody in this process should be held accountable."

Until the 1990s, most tower work involved radio and television towers, which can be more than 1,000 feet high. Some phone companies employed staff climbers to work on microwave towers used for long-distance calling.

With the proliferation of cell phones, the pace and volume of tower work spiked.

Carriers blanketed the country with cell sites to extend service to the most remote areas. There are now more than 280,000 sites nationwide, up from 5,000 in 1990. Many advances in service require switching out antennas and doing other upgrades.

"It's the wild, wild west of the technology industry. You've got to have a problem to hang 150 feet in the air on an 8-inch strap. You've got to be insane."

The surge of cell work forever altered tower climbing, an obscure field of no more than 10,000 workers. It attracted newcomers, including outfits known within the business as "two guys and a rope." It also exacerbated the industry's transient, high-flying culture.

Climbers live out of motel rooms, installing antennas in Oklahoma one day, building a tower in Tennessee the next. The work attracts risk-takers and rebels. Of the 33 tower fatalities for which autopsy records were available, 10 showed climbers had drugs or alcohol in their systems.

"It's the wild, wild west of the technology industry," said Victor Guerrero, a construction project manager and former climber. "You've got to have a problem to hang 150 feet in the air on an 8-inch strap. You've got to be insane."

Since 2003, an analysis of OSHA records show, tower climbing has had a death rate roughly 10 times that of construction. In 2008, the agency's top administrator, Edwin Foulke, called tower climbing "the most dangerous job in America" at an industry conference.

"That's an alarming incidence of fatalities," said John Henshaw, who preceded Foulke as OSHA's administrator from 2001 to 2004. "It shouldn't be tolerated."

The same handful of factors crop up again and again in agency investigations of worker deaths, our reporting found. In two dozen cases, for example, inspectors found that workers on sites where fatalities occurred had received inadequate training, records show.

Climbers typically earn $10 or $11 an hour, yet some subcontracting companies demand they pay for their own safety gear, deducting money from their paychecks.

Faulty or misused equipment was identified in almost one-third of the tower-related deaths since 2003, OSHA records show. In April 2008, after 46-year-old William Bernard died in a 75-foot fall, an inspector found that his safety harness, rusty with wear, had a defective hook.

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