The Killing Towers of the US Telecom Industry

by Bob Simpson

He fell 120 feet to the ground while dismantling an unused communications tower in Lincoln, Illinois on June 8, 2005. Although identified only as employee #1 in the official OSHA report, he was 43 year old Toby Wheale of Glendale, AZ. Wheale’s employer, Wireless Horizon Inc. of Lincoln IL, was fined $750. The head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) once called tower climbing “the most dangerous job in America.” Apparently $750 was the worth of this person’s life in the communications industry.

A total of 100 people died falling from communication towers between 2003-2011. Of these, 50 fell from cell phone towers. The worst carnage was between 2006-2008 when the iPhone rollout caused a spike in phone traffic that ATT had not anticipated and a major overhaul of the system was required.  The death rate for tower climbers is about 10 times that of construction workers.

Tower climbing in the telecom industry is non-union.
Cell tower

Many of us wake up to our cell phones and even go to sleep with them at night. We talk, text, browse the web, listen to music, take photos, shoot videos, record notes, check the time and so much more. The first commercial US cellular phone system was set up in Chicago in 1983. As of 2011, there were more mobile phones than people in the USA and approximately 280,000 cellular phone tower sites around the nation.

People are aware that cellular phone use while driving can be deadly. But there is another type of fatality involving cell phones that has received almost no attention, the deaths of tower climbers who install and upgrade cellular technology. A driver yakking carelessly on a cell phone can be a death foretold; so can a corporation demanding that workers climb towers hundreds of feet high on impossible deadlines without proper safety enforcement and training.

But now tower climbers are speaking out. As one climber put it: “People have no idea what we go through on a day to day basis to give them that service when they hold their cell phones.”

Helmet of a fallen tower worker (photo credit: Frontline)

The tower climbers do not work directly for the big telecoms like ATT or Verizon. They are enmeshed in a complex system of labor contractors and subcontractors and can make as little $10-$11 an hour for very hazardous work. The telecom giants make no serious effort to oversee their contractors and subcontractors and OSHA does not have the resources to keep tabs on all of them.

Many are mom and pop operations. Some are very safety conscious, but the economics of this highly competitive business work against responsible contractors. They compete with the cheap fly-by-night operations who ignore safety, provide little or no training and no supervision in the field.

Recently spotlighted by the TV show Frontline and the publication Pro Publica,  these revelations about tower climbers come on the heels of Chinese iPhone makers leaping to their deaths because of their terrible working conditions. The powerful 30 minute Frontline documentary about tower climbing can be seen on the web here. The telecom industry is a global operation with a deeply flawed business model sitting atop a morass of brutal labor exploitation.

At the heart of the problem lies the big telecoms ability to distance themselves from the workers who make the phones and service the tower infrastructure. For the tower climbers, the widespread abuses of labor contacting and subcontracting can make each workday a possible date with death.

Abuse by labor contractors goes back deep into our history. In the early days of European colonization, indentured servants working the tobacco plantations of Tidewater Maryland and Virginia experienced death rates of up to 50%. These workers were eventually divided along racial lines with black workers subjected to lifetime slavery while whites went free after 5-7 years if they survived the ordeal. Indentured servants who landed better jobs in domestic service or apprenticing in skilled trades reported beatings and sexual assaults among other abuses.

It took the American Revolution to end indentured servitude and the Civil War to end slavery.

In the 19th century labor unions and other reformers fought the use of prisoners as contract labor. The abuses were comparable to the earliest days of indentured servitude, especially as many of these people were not actually guilty of any crimes:

The death rate of prisoners leased to railroad companies between 1877 and 1879 was 16 percent in Mississippi, 25 percent in Arkansas, and 45 percent in South Carolina. The stories of violence and torture eventually led to massive reform and abolition movements involving alliances between prisoner organizations, labor unions, and community groups. By the 1930s, every state had abolished convict leasing.

In the early 20th century, immigrant workers opposed the sweatshop conditions imposed by labor contractors in the slums of New York and Chicago. The radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) fought the abuses of labor contractors in the farm fields of the West Coast in the face of extreme employer violence, a battle carried on by Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers beginning in the 1960s which also saw its share of employer violence.

Today contract labor is widespread across occupational lines. The tower climbers are not alone when it comes to abuse of low wage contract labor. Contract workers across the board report wage theft, minimum wage violations, health and safety violations plus a general disrespect of workers as human beings. Even today, some contract employees are literally being worked to death.

Chris Deckrow owns a small tower climbing company based in Michigan. He’s a contractor who does not want to work his employees to death. Since he can no longer afford to buy new safety equipment or continue training programs, he’s closing his business. Deckrow does not want to compete with the fly-by-night operations industry insiders call “two guys and a rope”. Chris Deckrow is dropping out of the race to the bottom.

“I want to be able to not worry about my guys not coming home. If we’re not properly maintained or trained, then people will die. It’s only a matter of time.”

Contractors who work on ATT and Sprint equipment must go through large companies like General Dynamics and Bechtel, both of which have been plagued by scandal in the past. Called “turf vendors” within the industry, these big companies negotiate directly with the big telecoms. By the time the actual work reaches small contractors (who often work side by side with their employees), there is very little money left. Verizon deals with contractors directly and usually sticks with the same ones repeatedly, paying them more money. Verizon has a better safety record than ATT.

Work deadlines set by the big telecoms can be ferocious. Project manager Don MacRae commented on the big iPhone rollout of 2007, “We were working in the field for 40 hours straight. They had crews in rain, sleet, snow.”

Steve Watts, a former risk manager for ATT said this,”I don’t think there’s any question that the pressure to build out the network has been a contributing factor to fatalities.”

The pressure to meet deadlines means that some tower climbers routinely do not follow safety procedures or wear the proper equipment. Some engage in a practice called “free climbing” which means climbing the towers without attaching themselves to prevent a fall. It’s fast, but risky. It is against OSHA guidelines, but some contractors simply look the other way.

Ray Hull was not free climbing when he was permanently disabled in 2003 while trying to meet a tight deadline in Nebraska. After a crane operator left the site because it was too windy, Hull asked for an extension from his contractor and was told that the telecom, Nextel, couldn’t wait. He and his partner Frankie Ketchens then drove 15 hours straight from Texas with the necessary equipment and hoped to sleep before ascending the tower.

Seeing a Nextel truck on the site, Hull decided they had better get to work right away. With Hull 240 feet up the tower, Ketchens made a mistake with the hoist, and a huge piece of steel came crashing down with Hull attached. Miraculously Hull lived, though badly injured. He sued in court and won a judgement from a contractor but the suit against Nextel was dismissed.

Hull is a third generation climber, a man who still misses going up on those towers saying,” 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.”

Loving the job comes up often in conversations with tower climbers. Wally Reardon, a former tower climber who now heads up the Tower Climber Protection Project says this about himself:

”I had no skills when I started other than factory and farm work. It was the first job I had that I loved to tell people about. I loved the adventure and I loved climbing on things others wouldn’t. The paycheck was secondary for me when I started.”

Wally Reardon

It’s a job that tends to attract a certain type of individual: one who likes working outdoors, who enjoys the ecstasy of being high above the world, who thrives on physical and mental challenge, enjoys the camaraderie of a good crew and who often, as Wally Reardon puts it, lives ”…a life that is non-conformative.”

But does a job that can bring such joy have to be so damned dangerous? Craig Lekutis, President of The Wireless Estimator, a man with nearly 30 years experience in the field, doesn’t think so. He compared the USA with countries ranging from Canada to Cambodia and concluded that the USA is the most dangerous place to work.

Canada is a much safer place to climb a tower because according to Tom Vardy, a senior consulting engineer and president of Varcon,”I think the main reason for the lack of tower accidents and fatalities in Canada is the safety programs in place for tower climbers, initiated by owners, consultants, contractors and the Federal Labor Code.”

Irish telecom expert Dr. Diarmuid Moran explains Ireland’s excellent safety record,”In Ireland, if a contractor had a fatality they would go out of business as the industry is small with four or five telcos and three or four broadband wireless operators, and ten contractor companies…Everybody knows what is going on. Mess it up with a fatality, then goodbye business in Ireland.” Moran is not aware of any tower fatalities in his country.

There have been efforts to clean up safety in the USA. OSHA has cited negligent contractors, but US law effective insulates the large telecoms from prosecution and OSHA’s resources are limited by the toxic political atmosphere in Washington where as the Bob Dylan song goes,”Money doesn’t talk, it swears.” OSHA’s regulatory model was established in the early 1970s for larger more centralized companies, not today’s Alice In Wonderland maze of subcontractors. Although new legislation has been introduced to hold big companies responsible, hope for its passage is dim.

Jordan Barab, a deputy administrator at OSHA explains his frustration:

“Generally, we can only cite employers when their employees are at the work site. As you go up the line, it becomes much more difficult to actually hold the companies at the top responsible.”

An industry group, the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE) has been working on safety and general education since 1995, sharing research and organizing conferences and workshops. However much of NATE’s focus was on worker behavior. In 2006, prodded by 19 tower climber deaths, NATE partnered with OSHA to coordinate safety improvement. At first the new relationship seemed to be working, but problems quickly arose.

The big telecoms would have nothing to do with the NATE-OSHA alliance. In 2008 OSHA informed NATE that NATE needed to hire a safety expert and run its own accident investigations. NATE replied that investigations were OSHA’s job and that NATE had no way of enforcing safety standards on irresponsible contractors or changing the “unrealistic schedules” of the big telecoms. The NATE-OSHA alliance was dead by the end of 2009.

Some observers dismiss the whole idea of OSHA-style regulation, saying that safety is the responsibility of the individual tower climber. They cite the case of Jay Guilford, a climber who fell to his death in 2008. Guilford was described by  veteran climber Robert Hale as young and cocky, unafraid of anything. While descending a tower, he rappelled down like a rock climber without attaching himself properly to the tower.

 Jay Guilford

While calling out,”Bouncy…bouncy” to the workers below, a defective clip broke and he plunged 150 feet to his death. Autopsy results confirmed that Guilford had been smoking pot.

Safety advocate Wally Reardon recognizes that drug and alcohol use is a problem, but says that little is being done to address that.

Tower climbers are overwhelming male.It is well known that some young men can be foolish risk takers. Scientific research suggests that this may be due excessive testosterone and brains that are still being rewired for maturity. But whatever the reason, if there are not mature experienced workers there to create a culture of safety and mutual respect, then some of the young guys are likely to ignore safety and even engage in dangerous horseplay.

Such a culture of safety can be hard to create with low bid contractors who don’t care, working for turf vendors who don’t care, and who answer to telecoms who don’t care either because it’s more profitable for them.

Of course tower climbers have to take personal responsibility. A stoned or reckless climber is a danger to themselves and those around them. However, according to our Supreme Court, corporations like ATT are now “persons”. Shouldn’t they be expected to exercise personal responsibility as well?

There have been no deaths in 2012, although a man was injured on May 25 after falling 100 feet from a tower in Texas. Industry veterans worry that there will be more fatalities with the next major rollout of cell phone upgrades as people rely even more on their phones for high bandwidth data transmission.

So who will step up for the “tower dogs” as they often call themselves. To expect OSHA and NATE to make the USA another Canada or Ireland for the tower climbers is unrealistic. However well intentioned they may be, they just don’t have the power.

The only people who can step up and create a true culture of safety while raising wages and benefits are the tower climbers themselves. That means they will need to do what workers have done since this nation was founded. Organize. On the discussion boards and comment sections of tower climber websites, the issue of unionization comes up, with both pro and anti-union sentiments expressed. My unscientific survey suggests that the anti’s are in the majority.

There are steep obstacles facing tower climbers who do wish to organize. Much of the work is done in rural areas and around small towns where union traditions are weak or nonexistent. Tower climbers deal with many small companies spread out across a big country. Persistent high unemployment  means that unfriendly contractors can easily find replacements for rebellious tower climbers, no matter how unsuitable the new recruits may be.

Verizon and ATT have many union workers in their ranks, but even there unions like the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Communication Workers of America are on the defensive. Our labor laws are weak, biased in favor of employers and enforcement is spotty. Every year thousands of workers are illegally fired for union activity

Workers have faced unfavorable conditions before and met with success. One of the greatest periods of labor organizing in US history came during the Great Depression when union membership was miniscule at the time of The Crash in 1929. Amidst high employment and armed violence, industrial workers created the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which helped pave the way for a middle class lifestyle that lasted well into the 1980s when a concentrated employer offensive eventually drove private sector union membership below 7%. Today, public workers  face the same kind of onslaught.

The CIO unions succeeded in their time because they radically changed the way unions were structured. Today conditions are very different from the 1930s or even the 1980s. With the rise of globalization, outsourcing and subcontracting, the older union structures are inadequate and frankly, barely up to the task of playing defense. Some unions are beginning to recognize this and are experimenting with new forms of organizing to deal with our badly broken labor relations system.

If tower climbers decide to organize, they will have to develop new strategies and organizational models that fit their unique economic niche. This will not be easy in today’s economic climate, but isn’t it the “non-conformative” who are the innovators in any field?

Tower climbers could choose to ally with those workers who are already transforming US labor relations, figuring out solutions that might work in an economy unlike any other in US history. Joining the labor movement means more than negotiating with hard-nosed employers. It could facilitate communication among tower workers and wield clout with all levels of government. Perhaps organized tower climbers could even ally with decent minded contractors who do not want to compete with “two guys and a rope”.

It could be a way to find allies among the general public and bring pressure on corporations who like to protect their public image. It can be a way to engage with researchers and hear ideas from people outside the tower climber ranks. A smart person from the outside can sometimes provide fresh perspectives to consider.

Of course it will be the tower climbers who will decide how to proceed into an uncertain future.

As for the rest of us who hold our cell phones next to us like we once cuddled our teddy bears, lets give the tower dogs our sincere thanks and wish them better days ahead.

I’m a Tower Dawg: A poem by tower climber Michael Vishkov

I’m a tower dawg. I live in this tower room. I love the spaces there.I can soar inside this tower room. They can take me anywhere. And they have. Because I’m the king in my castle, my walls are made of steel. My pack of towerdawg soldiers and I. We come to conquer towns. But when the work is over and the drive is stark and bare my motel’s feels like a dungeon with no one waiting there. I’m alive when I am climbing and I have an admission I must make. When I’m up here it feels like reality. When I’m off the tower it’s all seems so fake. There’s a lady somewhere waiting who loved me more than I could ever know. She died a little each time I left for the road. But she loved me enough to let me go. She prays someday I will find my way to bring her man home. But now for what I have done. I will be soaring towards the sun. Climbing this tower all alone…And that lady. Her name is Lori Ann Vishkoff the love of my life …

Sources Consulted

Ask a Former Cell Tower Worker by Nathan Tobey

In Race For Better Cell Service, Men Who Climb Towers Pay With Their Livesby Ryan Knutson, PBS Frontline, and Liz Day

Built for a Simpler Era, OSHA Struggles When Tower Climbers Die by Ryan Knutson, PBS Frontline, and Liz Day

Schedule and margin pressures seen as possible reasons for higher death count of techs in the US by Craig Lekutis

The Fatal Price of 3G

US Tower Structure Related Fatalities

The Wireless Estimator

How Subcontracting Affects Worker Safety

Poverty in the United States: An Encyclopedia of History, Politics and Policy Volume 1 By Gwendolyn Mink, Alice O’Connor

Rooted in Slavery: Prison Labor Exploitation by Jaron Browne

The Encyclopedia of Strikes in American History by Aaron Brenner,

Unregulated Work in Chicago by Nik Theodore, Mirabai Auer, Ryan Hollon, and Sandra Morales-Mirque

Bob “Bobbo” Simpson  spent many years as a history teacher on the South Side of Chicago in a working class neighborhood. He is now a social media writer based out of Oak Park Illinois. He works for WebTraxStudio which does work for unions, non-profit groups, social advocacy organizations and educational institutions.  He is also 1/2 of the Carol Simpson labor cartoon team. This post first appeared on his diary at Daily Kos, go there and recommend it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: