Spike in cell tower worker deaths prompts fresh concern

An increase in the number of deaths among cell tower workers this year has sparked new concerns about the safety hazards these workers face, particularly as the nation's Tier 1 carriers race to deploy LTE networks, which often involves deploying new antennas on cell sites.

According to a Wall Street Journal article, at least 10 workers have died in falls from towers so far this year, and another three more were seriously injured. That tally includes four workers who have fallen so far this month, including one on Saturday.

Those injuries and deaths are prompting new scrutiny from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency that deals with workplace safety. According to the WSJ report, which cited an unnamed source, OSHA is looking at new approaches to evaluating safety conditions in the tower-climbing business, including looking at what role carriers play. The agency is also investigating contracts and how pressure to complete projects on towers might be contributing to the deaths.

"OSHA is taking a close look into factors that may be responsible for this tragic increase in fatalities and, based on those findings, we will initiate additional measures to improve safety in the cell-tower industry," David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, told the Journal.

Most carriers farm out work on towers to contractors and subcontractors, and often do not have their own workers at cell sites during climbs to replace antennas, cables and other network gear, making it difficult for OSHA to assess what role they play.

Tim House, a spokesman for PCIA, the wireless infrastructure trade association, referred questions on the topic to the National Association of Tower Erectors.

NATE Executive Director Todd Schlekeway told FierceWireless the group has been "the industry leader in promoting tower climber safety, standards and education" and that its members have access to resources and guidelines that "help a company establish a culture of safety with their employees in their organization."

NATE also has created an internal program called the STAR Initiative, which Schlekeway said "emphasizes Safety, Training, Accountability and Reliability by asking participants to commit to increased voluntary site safety audits and requisite levels of training. This program has been a great success in the two years since we have been managing it and it has served to keep tower climbers and sites safer."

Schlekeway said NATE encourages carriers to use its Qualified Contractor's Evaluation Checklist to ensure that only qualified contractors with a proven safety record are hired. He noted that U.S. Cellular (NYSE:USM) recently started requiring that only NATE member companies are allowed to work on their sites.

"NATE and its members extend our heartfelt condolences and prayers to the family, friends and co-workers impacted by these recent tower work-related tragedies," Schlekeway said.

Tower climbing has long been considered one of the most dangerous occupations. In 2008, citing data from 2006 when 18 tower workers died, OSHA said flatly tower climbing was "the most dangerous job in America." However, fatalities have since declined, the Journal said, with only one death recorded in 2012.

Carriers and network vendors alike have expressed sadness over the deaths and stress that worker safety is one of their most paramount concerns, but that tower climbing isn't their expertise, which is why such work is often contracted out. However, tower crews sometimes work 12- or 16-hour days, and such long hours can lead to safety lapses, which can contribute to fatalities. 

The rise in tower climber deaths comes as carriers are pushing hard to increase LTE coverage, which is becoming a key competitive differentiator. AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) expects to have 270 million POPs covered with LTE by year-end, in a race to catch up to coverage leader Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ), whose network already covers 301 million POPs.

Meanwhile, Sprint (NYSE:S) is rolling through its Network Vision network modernization plans, which includes the deployment of multimode base stations on 38,000 cites and an upgrade to LTE; Sprint expects to cover 200 million POPs with LTE and continue work on Network Vision into the first half of 2014. And T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) is also racing to catch up; it now has 157 million POPs covered with LTE, beating its previously stated goal of hitting 100 million by mid-year, and the company expects to cover 200 million before year-end.

For more:
- see this WSJ article (sub. req.)

Related Articles:
Moody's: Sprint, AT&T LTE rollouts will boost tower companies
Analyst: Sprint's nationwide 2.5 GHz LTE network could be boon for tower companies
FCC takes multiple actions to speed up tower deployments
PCIA's Adelstein looks to build on infrastructure policy successes
Tower climbing a deadly job

Article updated Aug. 22 at 2:20 p.m. ET with comments from NATE.