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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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After two climbers died on AT&T jobs within a five-day period in April 2008, the carrier sent a letter to turf vendors calling for a construction stand down to discuss safety procedures and hold half-day courses to retrain workers.

But Guilford died just three and a half weeks after the work stoppage. Two more climbers died on AT&T jobs within the next four months.

AT&T would not answer questions about the stand down. In its statement, the carrier said that fatalities have decreased in the years since the stand down, aided by a safety initiative by OSHA and the tower industry.

Craig Lekutis – the founder of WirelessEstimator.com, a trade publication for the tower climbing industry – said the stand down turned out to be “more lip service” and not a long-term commitment.

Lekutis has tracked tower fatalities since 2004 and memorializes each lost climber on his website.

“Sadly, the major players know it’s happening and know that they are contributors to it,” he said, “but they don’t do anything.”

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Tower-climbing fatalities have dropped considerably since the end of 2008.

Nine climbers died on cell site projects between 2009 and 2011, less than half as many as in the three previous years. There has been only one fatality on an AT&T job since 2009. Ethan “Little Britches” Hutchinson, 18, died in May 2010 after falling from a tower in Arkansas when his safety gear malfunctioned.

Some in the industry point to improved safety practices to explain the smaller death toll. Others say the recession cut into the volume of tower work and that, after finishing 3G upgrades, much of what carriers needed could be done on the ground.

With the next big push – building out 4G LTE networks – just getting underway in major markets, some veteran climbers worry that the fatality numbers will rise again.

“If not this year, another bad year is going to come,” said Reardon, the tower industry veteran. “It’s all about trying to do things faster and cheaper.”

The subcontracting system remains much as it was during the worst years, climbers say.

There are also many young men like Jay Guilford, with few prospects and no experience, willing to climb towers if it means a steady paycheck.

Years later, the horror of Guilford’s death remains fresh to Pierce, who was engaged to him at the time. She remembers receiving the phone call from his father as she arrived home from shopping for an upcoming trip to Disney World.

“I freaked out and screamed and just screamed and screamed,” she said.

Yet, about a year and a half later, when her current boyfriend was out of work, Pierce approached Phoenix of Tennessee to ask if he could apply to be a tower climber.

In retrospect, she regretted doing so, she said, but it was the only company she knew that had work. Ultimately, he found a job at Jack in the Box.

Guilford’s stepbrother, Anthony Acker, also sometimes works as a tower climber. The family tried to talk him out of returning to it about a year ago.

“He said, ‘Don’t worry about me, old man, I’m being careful,” said Gary Hart, Acker’s father and Guilford’s stepfather. “I just hope it all works out for him because I don’t want to go through all this again.”

Coming next: How OSHA has struggled to police this dangerous industry.

Travis Fox of PBS “ Frontline,” Robin Respaut and Kirsten Berg of ProPublica and Habiba Nosheen contributed to this report.