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

Between 2003 and 2011, 50 climbers died working on cell sites, more than half of the nearly 100 who were killed on communications towers.

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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.

Guilford left behind a fiancée, 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, Tenn., 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.”

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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.

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.