by Liz Day, ProPublica
In a two-week span last August, four workers died from falls on cell towers scattered across the country. Before the year ended, another worker had plummeted to his death, this time in Kansas.
Then, in early February, two workers were killed and two more were hospitalized when two cell towers collapsed in West Virginia.
Spurred by a drumbeat of deadly accidents, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is changing how it investigates and assigns responsibility for injuries to tower climbers, the workers who build and maintain America’s cell phone networks.
Tower climbing, a small field of roughly 10,000 workers, has been called the most dangerous job in America. And as ProPublica and FRONTLINE reported in 2012, cell phone carriers and tower owners have insulated themselves from legal and regulatory liability for on-the-job injuries by delegating this work to layers of subcontractors.
Now, for the first time, OSHA is systematically tracking which companies subcontractors were working for when accidents occurred, collecting paperwork that spells out such relationships. In a letter sent in February to industry employers and state wireless associations, the agency criticized “check the box” language written into contracts that doesn’t set out clear standards for safety.