When a worker assembling cellphones in a plant in China hurls him/herself out of a window, it makes headlines. Like the human cost of extracting the minerals that go into making cellphone components, people yawn and write it off as the cost of progress. Among the many other dimensions of that cost is one that, until recently, received little attention - cell tower worker falls. According to a joint investigation by Frontline and ProPublica that was aired in May 2012, there is a well-established record of ill-equipped and ill-trained climbers who fall [pun intended] victim to low budget operations... and, to be honest, sometimes their own stupidity.
Cell tower climbers experience 10x more on-the-job deaths as the average construction worker. That might seem logical and even expected given that you normally think of a construction worker as the guy banging nails in that new housing development down the road. However, many construction projects are multi-story commercial and industrial buildings with heavy equipment and mammoth components being installed in often precarious situations. We have seen the vertigo-inducing photos of guys nonchalantly walking across steel beams suspended hundreds or even thousands of feet in the air. The difference with the cell tower crews is apparently lack of supervision, accountability, and most importantly, lack of self discipline.
As is standard operating procedure for the network investigative reporting crews, they seek out and use the toothless and the back-woods-hick-looking biker crowd (the ones they wouldn't be caught dead with publically otherwise) to help make their story. Central to the plot is a poor guy who was a pizza delivery guy who needed to make more money when his second out-of-wedlock child was born. He answered an advertisement looking for cell tower climbers. Personally, I give him credit for wanting to take responsibility for his family and wanting to advance his career rather than rely on Welfare, but the focus is on how the "turf vendors" - companies at the bottom of the contract food chain that actually do the work - exploit the workers in order to make money. With little or no training on climbing technique, safety equipment usage, electrical and RF hazards, or proper installation procedures to assuring longevity of cable connections, transceiver assemblies, antenna mounts, etc., guys with little experience are sent up towers to replace or repair components for which the sub contractors get paid as little as $40-50 for doing. According to one interviewee, the initial contract from the prime contractor might be $125, but by the time it trickles down to the sub-sub-sub-contractor who actually performs the task, it's pennies on the dollar. Many go out of business because they cannot afford workman's compensation and/or worksite insurance.
Per the video, the incidences of death and severe injury are coincident with every time the next generation (3G, 4G, 5G, etc.) system ramps up. Companies scramble to be the first to have the new services and the rest scramble to get onboard to take customers from early adopters who are dissatisfied with crappy cell service. OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, gets involved in the reported incidents but, according to top officials there, it is difficult for them to cite the prime contractor or, ultimately, the carriers because there are so many layers built into the flow of work. Courts have declined to hold anyone other than the final layer of contractor liable for the safety of tower climbers. The Frontline reporter presses a top OSHA guy on why they have not had more success in prosecuting top-tier players and his response is that the paperwork necessary to establish a complete line of provenance is prohibitive. I can believe it after watching the video.
The real issue here is who is ultimately responsible for tower climbers who shun well-established safety procedures and end up getting injured or killed. Don't the climbers themselves have an obligation to their employer, if not to themselves and their families, to observe proper practices? If a climber decides to not clip a safety lanyard to the tower as he climbs (aka free climbing - strictly forbidden), or decides to horseplay and repel down the side of a tower rather than climbing the provided steps, or to be drunk or high on the job, is that the sub-contractor's fault? Often the only person on the job site is the solitary climber who has agreed to perform the task at the prevailing wage, so there is nobody else to decide whether a person is qualified at the moment to do the job. Yes, there is a degree of outrage that corporate titans sitting in their corner offices are pulling down 7- and 8-figure compensation packages while Bubba replaces a burned-out amplifier 1,000 feet up, but that's the way the world turns. For better or for worse, the wireless gadget-using public is not concerned enough about it to force Verizon Wireless, AT&T Mobility, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile, TracFone Wireless, MetroPCS, U.S. Cellular, Cricket Wireless, et al, to police their subcontractors and assure the safety of those keeping wireless devices communicating.
So, the next time you complain about having a dropped call, just remember that your call might not be the only thing that dropped at the moment.
Here is a cool video of a cell technician atop a 1,500-foot tower - take by a drone!
This collection of video and audio files have
been featured on RF Cafe.
Videos for Engineers Archive
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Posted June 11, 2012