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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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Reynolds, who now works as an industry consultant, dismissed such gripes. “There’s enough subcontractors out there willing to work,” he said. Those that don’t like the prices, he said, will “do something else.”

Buckling on a harness before mounting a 300-foot tower last March to check out a broken light, Deckrow described how tight margins erode safety.

He said he’s struggled to pay insurance premiums, cut back on training programs and delayed buying new safety gear for his men.

“This is stuff they have to wear every day in order to live through the day,” he said. “We would love to replace it every year, every two years … It’s not in the budget.”

Deckrow said earlier this month that he had decided to close his company rather than making further cuts.

“I want to be able to not worry about my guys not coming home,” he said. Throughout the industry, companies are choosing between safety and staying in business, he added. “If we’re not properly maintained or trained, then people will die. It’s only a matter of time.”

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The worst years for cell site fatalities in the last decade were 2006 and 2008.

There is no way to correlate these figures with workloads or to compare one carrier’s tower work to another’s because such information is proprietary. As of mid-2011, the four major carriers had varying numbers of cell sites: Verizon had 44,250, T-Mobile had 50,143, AT&T had 56,070 and Sprint had 67,500, according to data from US Wireless 411, a report by UBS.

Most inside the industry agree, however, that AT&T faced unique challenges and pressure to build out its network.

After Cingular merged with AT&T in 2004, the combined company (which later took the AT&T name) had to join its network systems, adjusting virtually every single cell site. Reynolds compared it to replacing the engines of a 747 in mid-flight.

In 2006, when the bulk of this work was done, 10 climbers died on cell site projects, including four on jobs for AT&T within two months.

William “Bubba” Cotton, 43, was the first, crushed to death on March 10 when a rope snapped, dropping a 50-pound antenna on him. According to OSHA documents and court records, the accident occurred as two crews – one aloft and one on the ground – rushed to complete work on a tower in Talladega, Ala., before an upcoming NASCAR race. AT&T would not extend the deadline for the job despite a request from a crew leader, two workers testified in sworn depositions. (The company declined to comment on the case.)

The pressure ratcheted up again when AT&T became the exclusive carrier for the iPhone.

After the phone debuted in summer 2007, triggering a tsunami of data usage, customers began complaining about dropped calls and spotty service. According to a report in Wired, AT&T went to Apple, asking for help in limiting traffic to buy time for tower upgrades. Instead, Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs explored switching to Verizon, the report said.

To prepare for the iPhone 3G’s introduction in summer 2008, AT&T poured billions of dollars into wireless capital expenditures. The push meant work on an unprecedented scale for tower climbers.

“It was nuts,” said Dan MacRae, a project manager who has worked on cell site projects for several turf vendors. “We were working in the field for 40 hours straight. They had crews in rain, sleet, snow.”

The building boom was accompanied by a string of accidents.