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| Shapiro, Washburn & Sharp

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal discussed how the current race between cellphone providers to expand their coverage has led to an alarming increase in deaths among workers in the cell tower industry. The rise in fatalities has been so sharp that federal regulators have begun to take notice and many believe new oversight or restrictions may follow.

So far 10 workers have died due to falls from communication towers this year. Another three workers were critically injured in falls since January. These numbers include four workers who have fallen from cell towers across the country in only the past month. Early this month a 49-year-old climber fell nearly 200 feet from a Sprint cellphone tower in North Carolina. The worker was trying to attach his safety harness to the tower when he fell.

Though 10 deaths may not seem like a stunning number, you must take into account that there are only around 10,000 workers in the communication tower industry. The relatively small population means that proportionally, the industry ranks among the deadliest in the country. Back in 2008, when 18 cell tower workers died, OSHA announced that tower climbing was the single most dangerous job in the United States, ranking well above commercial fishing and logging.

Experts say that the recent rise in deaths corresponds directly with an increase in the money wireless carriers such as Sprint and T-Mobile are spending to upgrade their networks in an attempt to better compete with their bigger rivals, Verizon and AT&T. Sprint, for example, has announced that it intends to do work on each of its 38,000 cell sites over the next three years to upgrade its network to LTE.

The Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has announced that it is investigating each of the recent accidents and is also in the process of crafting a broad approach to addressing safety concerns for workers across the communication tower industry. OSHA has said it will take a closer look at what role the cellphone carriers play in these accidents, delving into agreements with subcontractors and determining if tight deadlines contribute to fatalities.

Safety experts say this shift in focus by OSHA is a surprise given that previous deaths have never prompted much discussion of the carriers themselves. That’s because carriers use contractors and subcontractors who employ the cell tower climbers. Despite the lack of direct employees, OSHA believes that harsh deadlines created by the carriers may play a role in the workplace accidents. Carriers routinely give large bonuses for finishing a site on time, something which incentives overworking. Given the boom in the industry, it’s not uncommon for crews to work 12 or 16-hour days. These long stretches of tiring work make it easy for workers to make simple, though ultimately deadly mistakes. Like most industries, overworked and overly tired employees are at great risk of suffering potentially deadly on-the-job accidents, a high price to pay for a day at work.


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