The Economics Behind One of the Deadliest Jobs in the United States

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Over parts of the last decade, cell-phone tower climbers were 10 times more likely to die on the job than construction workers. As cell-phone carriers struggled to keep up with new technologies, fix their towers to work properly after company mergers, and make sure their networks could handle rising demand, the climbers often paid a price. From 2003 to 2011, 50 climbers died while working. This news is coming to light thanks to a cooperative investigation by Pro Publica and Frontline. Some of the details in their investigation, listed below, show a lack of regard for safety and an economic scheme that favored middlemen, rather than the men putting their lives at risk.

Here are some excerpts from the Pro Publica feature, “In Race for Better Cell Phone Service, Men Who Climb Towers Pay With Their Lives:”

“With the proliferation of cell phones, the pace and volume of tower work spiked. Carriers blanketed the country with cell sites to extend service to the most remote areas. There are now more than 280,000 sites nationwide, up from 5,000 in 1990. Many advances in service require switching out antennas and doing other upgrades.”

“Since 2003, an analysis of OSHA records show, tower climbing has had a death rate roughly 10 times that of construction. In 2008, the agency’s top administrator, Edwin Foulke, called tower climbing 'the most dangerous job in America' at an industry conference.”

“Time pressure often leads tower hands to use a technique called free-climbing, in which workers don’t connect their safety harnesses to the tower. This allows them to move up, down and around more quickly, but leaves them without fall protection. In more than half of the tower fatalities we examined, workers were free-climbing, even though government safety regulations strictly prohibit it.”

 “Climbers typically earn $10 or $11 an hour, yet some subcontracting companies demand they pay for their own safety gear, deducting money from their paychecks.”

The first part of the investigative report went live on Pro Publica today. A Frontline special will air tonight at 10 p.m. Eastern.

—Joe Spring

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