A joint investigation with ProPublica

Labor Dept. Warns of “Alarming” Rise in Cell Tower Deaths

by

After “an alarming increase in worker deaths” last year, the U.S. Labor Department is urging mobile phone providers to redouble their focus on safety at cell tower sites across the nation.

According to the department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), 13 workers died at communication tower worksites in 2013 — more than in the previous two years combined. Four more were killed in the first five weeks of 2014, continuing what the agency called a “disturbing trend.”

“Tower worker deaths cannot be the price we pay for increased wireless communication,” said David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor at OSHA, in a statement.

During the last eight years, the number of U.S. smartphone subscribers has shot up by a factor of 44, from 3.5 million in 2005 to 156 million in 2013, according to comScore. However, the surging demand for better and faster cell phone service has come at a steep price.

A 2012 investigation by FRONTLINE and ProPublica found that between 2003 and 2011, nearly 100 climbers were killed on radio, TV and cell towers, a rate that was about 10 times the average for construction workers. Fifty of those deaths were at cell sites.

The investigation, Cell Tower Deaths, found that a complex web of subcontracting has allowed the nation’s major phone carriers to avoid scrutiny when accidents happen. Deaths were found to result from climbers lacking the proper safety gear or because they were sent hundreds of feet into the air with little training. To meet urgent demands from carriers or contractors, climbers sometimes worked overnight or in hazardous weather conditions.

Findings from OSHA suggest continued cause for alarm across the entire industry. In a letter sent to mobile firms this week, the agency voiced concern “about the possibility of future incidents, especially when the hazardous work is done by employees of subcontractors.” OSHA said that a “high proportion” of deaths were cause by “a lack of fall protection,” and that over the last several months, tower workers have been injured or killed by falling objects, equipment failure, and collapsing towers.

In a somber assessment, the agency concluded, “Every single one of these tragedies was preventable.”

blog comments powered by Disqus

In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS
Frontline Journalism Fund

Supporting Investigative Reporting

Funding for FRONTLINE is provided through the support of PBS viewers and by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Major funding for FRONTLINE is provided by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the Park Foundation, The Ford Foundation, the Wyncote Foundation, and the FRONTLINE Journalism Fund with major support from Jon and Jo Ann Hagler on behalf of the Jon L. Hagler Foundation.
PBSCPBMacArthur FoundationPark FoundationFord Foundationwyncote

FRONTLINE   Watch FRONTLINE   About FRONTLINE   Contact FRONTLINE
Privacy Policy   Journalistic Guidelines   PBS Privacy Policy   PBS Terms of Use   Corporate Sponsorship
FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of WGBH Educational Foundation.
Web Site Copyright ©1995-2014 WGBH Educational Foundation
PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.