The boom in cell phones has spawned a huge demand for the building and maintenance of radio towers and that demand accelerated with the introduction of iPhones. The good news was that work proliferated - but under brutal, highly aggressive schedules. Now, with carriers gearing up for 4G networks, the anticipated building boom raises alarm in many seasoned workers - who see a proliferation of less trained, less experienced workers, working under more pressure for less pay - a recipe that points to the potential for more fatalities.
Frontline and Pro Publica focus on cell tower worker deaths, a small industry with a death rate that is about 10 times the rate of construction. Free climbing - climbing completely untethered without any safety gear - was involved in about half the deaths. (See our prior post with a gut-wrenching free climbing video clip: You think your job is tough? It remains one of this blog's most visited posts.)
Tower work is carried out by a complex web of subcontractors - an arrangement that makes good sense on many levels, but that allows large carriers to deflect responsibility for on-the-job work practices - and for any workplace deaths. These networks are like like the Russian nesting dolls: layer after layer of progressively smaller employers. Tower owners are carriers like AT&T that hire firms such as Bechtel and General Dynamics to manage and complete tower projects. The industry jargon for these firms is "turf vendors." The turf vendors then hire contracting firms, who in turn hire subcontractors. The end result: less money, less experienced workers, less training, less focus on safety and more deaths. This layering makes OSHA enforcement almost impossible. The lowest rung on the ladder is the one responsible for safety - and enforcement becomes what some industry observers call a game of "whack a mole." Safety experts say that the responsibility for safety has to lie up the line, probably with the turf vendors.
Contract work and subcontracting is the new normal. The old contract between the employer and the employee is fraying, the concept of lifetime employment is increasingly a quaint tale of yesteryear. How this new normal will play out in terms of employee safety and employee protections should be of great interest to workers as this pattern proliferates in other industries. Even aside from politics, one has to wonder if the very concepts of workers compensation and OSHA -- and other worker protections -- would come into existence in a fragmented work environment like the current one.
Additional articles from the series
Transcript of a live chat with reporters and project manager for the Tower Climber Protection project. We note that the project manager is Wally Reardon, who commented on our prior post, linked above.)
Jordan Barab discusses OSHA limitations