Frontline: “Cell Tower Deaths”
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Frontline: “Cell Tower Deaths”

Tonight’s Frontline explores the human cost of the smartphone revolution, and no, it’s not about factory workers in China. The half-hour report, with the bleakly matter-of-fact title “Cell Tower Deaths,” details the risky work conducted by low-paid workers right here in America. Correspondent Martin Smith recites the grim statistics in the opening minutes of the report: Since 2003, more than 50 climbers have been killed after falling from cell towers, a fatality rate 10 times higher than that of construction workers. It is, according to one government official, the most dangerous job in the country.

Despite the high level of risk involved, the job tends to attracts low-skilled, thrill-seeking workers who are willing to put their safety on the line for as little as $10 an hour. The survivors of several victims are featured in “Cell Tower Deaths,” including the widow of Jay Guildford, a young man who plummeted 150 feet to his death in May of 2008 while working on an AT&T cell tower. Guildford, who’d worked odd jobs as a mover and pizza delivery man, had received almost no training and had marijuana in his system at the time of the accident, but what ultimately sealed his fate was a piece of faulty equipment: a broken hook missing its safety latch.  

Although Guildford was working on a tower for AT&T—at the time, the carrier was frantically updating its infrastructure in order to accommodate its new 3G network—he was actually employed by a subcontractor several steps down the food chain from the cell phone giant.  This kind of multi-level subcontracting is standard within the industry, not only because it’s cost-efficient (or at least it is for those at the top), but also because it insulates the major carriers against blame in case of accidents. Without knowledge of safety violations, the carrier can’t be held responsible, and the multiple layers of vendors and contractors make it easier for them to turn a blind eye. Most subcontractors work with a very narrow profit margin, and frequently cut corners on expenses like safety equipment and insurance, putting climbers at further risk. 

The extensive subcontracting also makes it difficult for government regulators, like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), to determine which towers belong to which cell phone company—or so they claim. One OSHA official who appears in the report says that “it’s a lot of work” to determine which carriers are connected to fatalities. In the closest thing the episode has to a “gotcha” moment, Smith dismisses the claim: “It’s two or three phone calls.” Whatever the case may be, OSHA has rarely issued citations against carriers, and the fines have been negligible. The subcontractor cited in Guildford’s death ultimately paid a fine of $2,500.

In recent years, the construction of these towers has surged as a result of expanded cellular usage and the constant need for faster, more expansive networks. And this, of course, is where we’re all implicated. According to Frontline, tower deaths reached a peak in the years from 2006 to 2008, just after the introduction of the iPhone and AT&T’s acquisition of Cingular. During those years, 11 climbers died on AT&T towers, more than the total of its three closest competitors.

Unfortunately, if predictably, it’s the people at the bottom who are most acutely affected by the fierce competition between carriers. Under intense deadline pressure, workers will often “free climb” without ropes. Or, in the case of a former climber named Ray Hull, they’ll drive 40 hours non-stop to pick up equipment, then climb up a 300-foot tower. Hull fell from the tower after being struck by a falling steel beam, and survived despite severe internal injuries.

At a time when Americans just can’t seem to get enough of reality shows like Ice Road Truckers to Ax Men to The Deadliest Catch, this Frontline report provides a sobering reminder that risking one’s life on the job is never quite as sexy as we’d like to think it is. And, not to put too fine a point on it, but while the majority of us will never partake of Alaskan King Crab, nearly every last one of us owns a cell phone.

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