The Fatal Price of 3G
May 23, 2012 8:00 am
Every day, millions of us wake up with mobile devices nearby — not just because we set our alarms on them, but so that we can immediately tap into content. For the remainder of the day, we go about our business one-handed (texting, tweeting, typing emails) and arguably one-eyed — an army of Cyclopes paying as much attention to “real-time updates” as “real time.”
The media provides plenty of opinions about the ubiquity of mobile apparatus use and what it’s doing to us. For each claim that the incessant fixation on our phones is killing our ability to connect (not to mention our attention spans), there are a flurry of comments from technological idealists who believe in the ultimate good of our phones — how they link us; their beneficence on our future.
The lesser heard story concerns the men and women who make all this connection possible. Not visionaries like the late Steve Jobs, whose iPhone has been a top-selling smartphone since its inception in 2008, but the “tower dogs” who climb to the crests of communications towers to bring cell phone coverage to customers via providers who need to stay ahead of the latest advances in order to turn a profit.
Since the beginning of the cell phone era in the early 1980s, wireless companies have been rapidly covering the country with cell sites. In 1990 there were 5,000 sites scattered across America. By 2008 there were 190,000. Today, more than 280,000 sites blanket the nation, many of whose towers have been sold to companies that rent space to a plethora of carriers. In turn, maintenance work is often subcontracted out, resulting in a precarious “self-employed tower worker climbing a tower owned by one company, to fix an antenna owned by another, with safety wires installed by another company, or not.”
While the building and maintenance of towers is necessary for cell service, cell carriers claim that their outsourcing of tower work is a result of this not being a principal business for carriers, but a sporadic and as-needed job, better suited for contractors more versed in construction knowledge. True or not, it protects cell companies from facing legal or regulatory consequences when there are accidents (and deaths).
An article by Ryan Knutson and Liz Day in ProPublica points out that “[b]etween 2003 and 2011, 50 climbers died working on cell sites, more than half of the nearly 100 who were killed on communications towers. … Since 2003, an analysis of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (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.’”
Despite these horrific statistics, and because of the sub-contractual nature of tower work, the connection between cell phone carriers and tower climbing deaths has been hard to trace. Wireless Estimator provides statistics on “US Tower Structure Related Fatalities,” but browsing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) database of workplace accident investigations tells a very different story. Not even a single fatally is listed.
The rise of cell tower fatalities is rooted in myriad of sources. While sub-contracting speaks to the difficulty of imposing and maintaining safety regulations, the ubiquity of cell phones hasn’t helped. So as to not interrupt cell service, tower workers are often asked to perform their work during late night hours. Furthermore, time restraints have led to so called “free-climbing,” in which workers don’t connect their safety harnesses to the towers before climbing up to work on this or that urgent problem.
“It’s the wild, wild west of the technology industry,” said Victor Guerrero, a construction project manager and former climber. “You’ve got to have a problem to hang 150 feet in the air on an 8-inch strap. You’ve got to be insane.”
Deaths peaked between 2006 and 2008 at a time when Apple was laying the groundwork to introduce 3G to America via AT&T. From ProPublica: “In a written statement, AT&T said it required its contractors to follow safety regulations and that cell tower fatalities had decreased in recent years even as carriers have continued to make expensive improvements to their wireless networks. There were no fatalities on AT&T jobs last year, the statement noted. “Worker safety has always been a hallmark of AT&T,” the statement said.”
Despite AT&T’s reputation for complying with unions and pledging fairness for its workers, the lack of accountability on their part — and on the part of every other major provider — is shameful. And it is disgusting that because of a subcontracting loophole, companies can report a goose egg in relation to workplace related accidents, as if these workers (not to mention their families) didn’t exist at all.
Photo from here