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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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“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.

Carriers sometimes power down cell sites when climbers are on them, so subcontractors often work overnight, when fewer customers will notice disruptions. Jeremy Combs, 33, fell to his death just before midnight in September 2008, on a job where the crew wore headlamps and raced to meet an accelerated timetable, OSHA inspectors found.“Once you leave men alone, the men have to police themselves,” he said.


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


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. This allows them to move up, down and around more quickly, but leaves them without fall protection. In more than half of the tower fatalities we examined, workers were free-climbing, even though government safety regulations strictly prohibit it.

Wally Reardon, a veteran climber who quit in 2002, takes photos and video whenever he spots workers free-climbing to raise awareness about the practice. It often occurs within clear view of on-site supervisors and has their tacit approval, he said.

“Even the safest people I’ve worked with in the industry eventually will cave to it,” he said of the pressure to use such shortcuts.

After 32-year-old William Knorr died in a 2004 fall, OSHA found that his supervisors had “completely disregarded” safety regulations to save “Time, Work, Money,” an investigation report said. “Was there a motive? Faster and Easier.”

No one knows better than Ray Hull how time pressure can lead to injuries.

In November 2003, Hull, then 35, was hired by a subcontractor to help build a 350-foot cell tower for Nextel in a cornfield near Fremont, Neb. The job needed to be done by midnight on Thanksgiving, just seven days away.

The project ran into a series of problems. The crane operator, deciding it was too windy to work, took his crane and left. Hull found replacement equipment, but it was in Texas, more than 15 hours away. Setting out to retrieve it, Hull and another tower hand, Frankie Ketchens, drove nonstop, taking turns behind the wheel.

When they arrived back at the site two days later, there was a Nextel truck near the tower’s base. Hull assumed the carrier wanted to make sure the job was on time. He was mistaken – the driver was just a technician – but instead of returning to their motel to sleep, Hull and Ketchens immediately went to work.