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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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When Hull had climbed 240 feet to add a section to the tower, Ketchens pulled the wrong lever on equipment hoisting a huge piece of steel. The equipment broke away from the tower and fell to the ground – with Hull attached. His safety harness broke his fall momentarily, then snapped.

Hull has no memory of falling or hitting the ground. When he came to, he saw Ketchens above him. “I said, ‘Frankie, I can’t live through this … You need to tell my family I love them,” Hull recalled.

According to court records, Hull suffered massive internal injuries. He sued three companies involved with the project, and received a settlement from the subcontractor that hired his firm.

His case against Nextel was dismissed, however. In court documents, the carrier argued that its final project deadline was actually a month later and hadn’t compelled the climbers to take undue risks.

The carrier also said it wasn’t responsible for Hull, who, as a subcontractor, was “three entities removed from any relationship with a NEXTEL entity.” (Nextel merged with Sprint in 2005. Sprint declined to comment on the case.)

Hull’s injuries left him unable to climb towers. He started climbing at 14, following his father and grandfather into the business. Nearly nine years after the accident, he still misses it horribly. “There’s probably not a human being alive that loved their job as much as I did,” he said. “Everything that I could do was taken from me.”

Watching an OSHA video of the accident scene for the first time late last year, his eyes welled with tears.

“It was a bad day. Or a good day depending on which way you look at it,’ he said. “I walked away from it.”

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Cell carriers give several reasons for why they outsource tower work: Building and maintaining towers, though crucial to cell service, isn’t part of their core business. Contractors have greater expertise with construction. It’s more economical to hire workers where and when needed, given the up-and-down volume of work.

“It makes good business sense for them to contract it out,” Watts said.

But handling tower work this way also insulates companies atop the contracting chain from legal and regulatory consequences when there are accidents, industry insiders say.

OSHA has the authority to cite carriers if it can prove they had direct control over work or knew of safety violations. Yet, even though some carriers set prices and timetables for tower jobs – and many of their technical specifications, down to how to color code coaxial cables – their supervisors typically stay off-site and do not manage jobs directly.

The oversight system provides an incentive for them not to know too much about what’s happening on work sites, labor experts say.

“Information that there are unsafe practices makes you responsible for fixing those practices,” said Thomas Kochan, a professor of management at MIT.

AT&T contracts spell out precisely what level of responsibility it wishes to have over each aspect of tower projects. In a table called the Division of Responsibilities Matrix, the carrier lists more than 100 tasks and, for each one, indicates if AT&T wants responsibility for it, to be consulted on it, or to be informed about it.

In three-year contracts issued in 2008 that were examined by ProPublica and PBS “Frontline,” the matrices were blank for safety-related items, such as ensuring that OSHA standards were met. Contractors told us they understood this to mean the carrier wanted no involvement with them at all. AT&T declined to answer questions about the matrix.