Fatal Tower Collapse in Clarksburg, West Virginia: What’s the Real Cost of Your Cell Phone?

Fatal Tower Collapse in Clarksburg, West Virginia: What’s the Real Cost of Your Cell Phone?

Fatal Tower Collapse in Clarksburg, West Virginia: What’s the Real Cost of Your Cell Phone?

On February 1st of this year, Kyle Kirkpatrick, Terry Lee Richard and Michael Dale Garrett died when a cell tower collapsed in Harrison County, WV. Mr. Kirkpatrick and Mr. Richard, aged 32 and 27, respectively, were working on a communications tower in order to add additional tenant equipment to it when it suddenly collapsed. The two workers died at the scene. Mr. Garrett, a volunteer fireman who was responding to the scene of the accident, was killed by debris when a second tower collapsed after having been weakened by the destruction of the first tower. He was only 28 years old.

All three of these men were struck down in the prime of their lives. None of them deserved to die. Accidents like the one that took their lives are becoming part of the way that communications companies do business, and those business practices should make you look twice at the real cost of your monthly cell phone bill.

A 2012 investigation conducted by FRONTLINE and ProPublica discovered that between the years 2003 and 2011, 93 workers were killed on communications towers, a rate of death ten times the national average for construction workers. 50 of the workers killed were at cell cites. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration [OSHA], there have been fourteen injuries or fatalities on communications towers nationwide since September 2013, more incidents than the past two years combined. Here's something else that's rising at the same time: the number of U.S. smartphone subscribers. PBS reports that the number of U.S. smartphone subscribers has shot up by a factor of 44, from 3.5 million in 2005 to 156 million in 2013. That number is only expected to rise.

In an interview with the West Virginia Gazette, Randy Gray, a former OSHA inspector, attributes the sharp increase in accidents to rising demand from cell phone companies racing to replace older 3G cell networks with 4G or 4GLTE data networks. As he explains, "Let's say AT&T or Verizon takes out a contract and they put a deadline for completion, then the pressure is on at that point. Because if they don't meet that contract, then they start getting penalties for not completing it on time. That's when things exist like taking shortcuts - So what if we don't put those safety harnesses on today because those harnesses are going to slow us down." When unsafe working practices are not only condoned, but incentivized, dangerous working conditions for workers result. However, no increase in cell call quality can justify the reckless loss of human life.

Although pressure from major cell companies is the driving force behind these unsafe labor practices, because of a complex set of subcontracting arrangements, the major phone carriers avoid scrutiny or blame when accidents occur. This can be seen in the web of companies involved in last month's tragedy in West Virginia: S&S Communications was servicing a tower owned by SBA Communications, presumably at the behest of some larger telecommunications company. Although the investigation hasn't been concluded yet, if this accident is anything like past accidents suffered by S&S workers, it probably was a result of too much haste and too little concern for worker safety.

February's tragedy was not S&S's first fatal accident. In 2009, the company was sanctioned after an employee fell to his death from a 330-foot communications tower in Oregon County, Missouri.  The company was cited for the employee's failure to use a safety harness or a backup safety tether at the time of his death. Although OSHA is investigating both SBA Communications and S&S Communications for the deaths of Mr. Kirkpatrick, Mr. Richard and Mr. Garrett, no information has been released regarding what major carrier had originally requested the work be done. That's not surprising: OSHA has never issued a violation to a large cellphone carrier.

In an open letter to communication tower industry employers published a few weeks ago, David Michaels, the Assistant Secretary for OSHA, stated that "Tower worker deaths cannot be the price we pay for increased wireless communications... Every single one of these tragedies was preventable." As he concluded, "It is imperative that the cell tower industry take steps immediately to address this pressing issue: no worker should risk death for a paycheck."

At Bordas & Bordas, we agree.