Better Cell Phone Towers Kill People (Updated)

AT&T's network sucked in 2008, glutted with iPhones and facing the menace of a 3G rollout. So like its competition, it put together a slapdash operation to build towers at any cost. Even a human cost, ProPublica reports.

A joint investigation by ProPublica and PBS' Frontline dug up a corporate culture of rampant neglect, workplace recklessness, shoddy planning, and, well, death. Death and the subsequent rug-sweeping of that death: major carriers like AT&T and Verizon spend extra money to have subcontractors subcontract tower work, so that if someone plummets to his death, the branching inefficiency serves as a buffer. And this is a deliberate strategy:

AT&T contracts spell out precisely what level of responsibility it wishes to have over each aspect of tower projects. In a table called the Division of Responsibilities Matrix, the carrier lists more than 100 tasks and, for each one, indicates if AT&T wants responsibility for it, to be consulted on it, or to be informed about it.

In three-year contracts issued in 2008 that were examined by ProPublica and PBS "Frontline," the matrices were blank for safety-related items, such as ensuring that OSHA standards were met. Contractors told us they understood this to mean the carrier wanted no involvement with them at all. AT&T declined to answer questions about the matrix.

They were likely left blank for a reason, ProPublica explains:

One carrier, AT&T, had more fatalities on its jobs than its three closest competitors combined, our reporting revealed. Fifteen climbers died on jobs for AT&T since 2003. Over the same period, five climbers died on T-Mobile jobs, two died on Verizon jobs and one died on a job for Sprint.

The death toll peaked between 2006 and 2008, as AT&T merged its network with Cingular's and scrambled to handle traffic generated by the iPhone. Eleven climbers died on AT&T jobs in those three years

In total, 50 contractors died between 2003 and 2011 while trying to boost your cell signal, usually at a wage of $10 an hour. Their equipment and training was often piss poor if there was any at all, all compounded by an aggressive scramble to quash reputations of shitty cell coverage. The full report is grim, damning, and disquietingly illustrative of a part of our phones that's remained invisible. And our coverage usually still sucks. [ProPublica]

Update: AT&T chimed in with their take on tower safety:

"AT&T outsources wireless tower construction and maintenance to expert companies, many of which are large publicly traded firms with decades of experience. Our contracts with these companies require strict compliance with state and federal laws and regulations, including worker safety. AT&T requires these contractors to establish a separate safety organization to fully train their employees. We also require all of our contractors to perform background checks, including drug screens, on every individual who works on our projects. Contractors who violate the conditions of their contracts are subject to termination. Worker safety has always been a hallmark of AT&T.

"The wireless industry has invested tens of billions of dollars in recent years to enhance and expand cellular networks, requiring an enormousamount of work on cell towers. Over that time, data shows cell tower worker fatalities have significantly decreased. In fact, in 2011, outside contractors performed more than 45,000 unique jobs for AT&T – up 250% from 2009 – with no reported fatalities.

"Though AT&T does not handle wireless tower construction and maintenance itself, we strongly support the work of OSHA and the National Association of Tower Erectors, who together launched theirwireless tower worker safety initiative in 2007, resulting in a dramatic improvement in worker safety."