It is commonly referred to as the most frightening video on the Internet, particularly because it is real and was produced “in the name of science.” It depicts a worker scaling a narrow ladder, starting at over 1,000 feet above a sparse countryside. As he hastily ascends, the ladder becomes increasingly narrow and difficult to navigate. He attaches D-ring clips from a utility belt to nearby holes along the way, and wears a hard hat with a mounted video recorder, allowing us our virtual first-person view. He takes occasional breaks — looks up, down and around him. Storm clouds loom above and to the side, a rural abyss yawns below. He continues up with another worker just beneath his hanging, 30-pound utility bag. They move quickly, opting to “free climb” rather than use safety clips for some length in order to speed up the process. They finally reach the top, nearly 2,000 feet in the sky, and mount a small platform, which can’t be more than one yard in diameter. They are higher than the Sears Tower, and the panoptic view is dizzying, if not completely unnerving.
This is apparently routine for these men. They are tower climbers in the telecommunications industry — arguably one of the most dangerous jobs on Earth.
“Most Dangerous Job in America”
Edwin Foulke, a former top administrator for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), actually gave tower climbing the title of “most dangerous job in America” at an annual speech given to the National Association of Tower Erectors in Nashville in 2008. The safety of the job in other countries’ jurisdictions varies, but America is comparatively hazardous for a developed nation. Canada is often credited with a low death rate in this industry, possibly due to their heavy legal penalties for contractors who fail to adhere to safety regulations. There were 12 tower climbing deaths reported in the U.S. in 2014, and 13 in 2013. Although difficult to quantify (there is no Standard Industrial Classification code for tower climbing, and the job grows and becomes more diverse with the expansion of the industry) the job is highly specialized. A dozen souls per year make up a very large portion of the elite tower climbing work force.
The dramatic rise in cell phone use in recent years has caused transmission towers to proliferate all over the United States. Major telecommunications companies, who usually hire a single turf vendor to act as a middleman between the organization and its various contracts, often subcontract tower climbers who are in turn responsible for their own safety protocol. This is a technique that has insulated companies from liability, and as a result bereaved families receive very little compensation from the smaller subcontracting entities after their loved ones are killed on the job.
As the telecommunications industry flourishes, it drives contractors to increase productivity, even if it means throwing unqualified workers into the field with little to no supervision. Anybody who has done manual labor in the United States can likely attest to the inverse correlation of the demand for higher productivity and the respect for employees’ safety. The safety of workers all too often requires the persistent oversight of a third, independent party. OSHA, the Federal Communications Commission, and the National Association of Tower Erectors have taken steps to at least raise awareness on the issue of tower worker deaths — but a 2014 workshop attended by representatives from all three organizations largely suggested that the safety of tower climbers on the job moving forward would be a matter of contractors themselves maintaining a company culture of vigilant adherence with protocol. There is no union currently in place to help ensure that this is done.
Solutions on the Horizon
New technology is developing to supposedly help protect the safety of tower climbers in the form of two major innovations: unmanned aerial systems, and digital tie-off solutions (or “smart lanyards”). The former, which is likely a somewhat distant probability, will supposedly employ drones to perform maintenance tasks at great heights. The latter method apparently tracks and/or manages tie-off points and events through some form of smart system. The FCC in their workshop with OSHA and NATE did not discuss this technology at length, but apparently there are patents in the works for some sort of digital tie-off system. Along with empowering workers to adhere to already existing protocol, this may also help facilitate easier supervision of their conduct from ground level (preventing them from “free climbing,” which has been a prominent concern for many of tower climbing’s most vocal critics).
Telecommunications technology profoundly affects modern daily life. These workers risk (and often lose) life and limb in order for it to thrive. Workers need an authority to stop work in unsafe conditions, because company foremen should not automatically be expected or trusted to do so. New technology can empower people to work under safe conditions, and it can also edge out or replace the human work force with automation. But how we treat our workers in the meantime is a reflection of how much we value labor, as well as the human beings that make up what’s left of our working class.