Dangers of wireless tower climbing: New survey finds over 65 percent of technicians have seen coworker injured or killed on job site
More than 65 percent of wireless tower technicians have been on a job site where someone has been injured and 4 percent where someone has been killed, according to a new safety survey from the Tower Climbers Union/CWA. The survey, the first ever conducted by and for tower technicians and completed by current wireless tower climbers contracted through AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile, among others, exposes a nearly universal lack of adequate safety rules and training by employers. Coupled with pressure to meet deadlines imposed by the wireless carriers and tower owners, and hazardous rules outside of workers’ control, the result is increasing injuries and incidents, many of which are never even investigated.
In response, wireless tower technicians who formed a union with CWA in May 2022 have launched a petition calling on the nation’s top telecom corporations to commit to improving safety standards and work conditions. These demands were elevated by former CWA President Chris Shelton in letters sent to the CEOs of AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Dish, American Tower, SBA, and Crown Castle, in which Shelton called out wireless carriers and tower owners for shirking the responsibility of ensuring worker safety through layers of contracting, and demanded a Tower Technicians’ Bill of Rights.
"Our country's wireless networks would not function properly without their labor. Yet, instead of taking responsibility for their working conditions, you have helped to create a network of contractors engaged in cutthroat competition that puts tower technicians at the bottom, their safety at risk, and far too often their very lives on the line,” said CWA President Chris Shelton in the letters.
The survey finds that the overwhelming majority of respondents indicate that their employers impose rules or work requirements that can compromise safety, which the tower climbers have no say in. Tower owners such as American Tower, Crown Castle, and SBA Communications allow or require work during dangerous weather (cited by nearly 73 percent of respondents) and at night (over 68 percent), installing equipment heavier than towers are designed to handle (over 47 percent), and forcing multiple crews to work on a tower at the same time (nearly 42 percent).
Additional key findings include:
- Nearly 1 in 5 workers know someone who has been killed on the job
- 1 in 4 workers have been on 5 or more job sites where someone has been injured
- More than 77 percent of respondents have experienced wireless carriers such as Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T, and DISH Network imposing unrealistic deadlines for completing jobs
- Close to 25 percent of respondents reported that safety incidents on the job were rarely or never investigated and, when they are investigated, “nothing happens” as a result of the investigation.
“I have one of the most interesting jobs in America, but it’s also one of the most dangerous. I’ve worked in extreme wind, at night when it’s hard to see two feet in front of me, and in freezing temperatures, all while hundreds of feet up in the air,” said Ryan Dupal, a tower technician of 10 years and member of the Tower Climbers Union/CWA. “Despite the essential work that I do, my safety and well-being is of little concern to the major telecom companies who profit off of my work. By hiring workers like me through contractors, telecom giants like AT&T and Verizon are attempting to avoid responsibility for what happens to us on the job. That’s why tower technicians across the nation are organizing together to demand the safety standards, working conditions and fair wages that we deserve.”
Wireless tower climbing is one of the deadliest jobs in the country, with tower climbers working hundreds of feet in the air. Despite this risk, over 31 percent of tower technicians reported in the survey that their employer does not provide short-term disability insurance and nearly 12 percent do not carry Workers’ Compensation insurance. Tower climbers lack these benefits, and a voice on the job, in part because they aren’t directly employed by the handful of large and immensely profitable wireless carriers and tower owners. Instead, tower technicians are generally employed by hundreds of small subcontractors, while the massive companies maintain control of their working conditions and deadlines.
“As a worker in the telecom industry, I help connect thousands of people, family and businesses across the country. I love my job, though there are risks that come with this line of work. That risk is exacerbated by major telecom corporations, placing us in situations that remove our ability to speak up on safety issues that arise on job sites. The mentality in this industry of ‘If you do not get the job done, we will find someone that will’ has to stop, when it comes to our safety." said Tommy Schuch, a tower climber, foreman, trainer, and Rope Access Technician of 12 years and member of the Tower Climbers Union/CWA. “Our work days typically last 12 to 15 hours, and sometimes up to 20 or more hours. Meanwhile, we’re facing increasing pressure to meet unrealistic deadlines enforced by the very wireless carriers and tower owners who refuse to be held accountable for our safety. It’s time these carriers stop putting us directly in harm’s way and start imposing common sense safety standards on the job.”
The complete survey findings can be viewed here.
CWA urges the FTC and the DOJ to take into account in merger review guidelines the role of collective bargaining in counterbalancing employer market power