The race to build out advanced cellphone networks in the U.S. has contributed to a spike in deaths among tower workers, making this one of the industry's deadliest years and drawing fresh scrutiny from federal regulators.
At least 10 workers have died in falls from communication towers so far this year, and three more were seriously injured. That included four climbers who have fallen from U.S. cell sites so far this month, including one on Saturday.
The accidents, nine of which were related to cellphone network work, come during one of the biggest building booms in years, as Sprint Corp. and T-Mobile US Inc. ramp up major network upgrades in an attempt to catch up with Verizon Wireless and AT&T Inc., which are far ahead in rolling out so-called LTE broadband service.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the accidents. The agency is also exploring a broad new approach to policing the tower-climbing business, including taking a closer look at the role cell carriers play in accidents, according to a person familiar with the matter. The agency is examining contracts and exploring how deadline pressure may contribute to the fatalities.
The scrutiny is a shift for the agency, which previously hasn't investigated the role of carriers in tower accidents. That is because carriers work through contractors and subcontractors rather than employing climbers directly, and carriers don't have employees on site when accidents happen, making it difficult for OSHA to establish responsibility up the contracting chain.
"OSHA is taking a close look into factors that may be responsible for this tragic increase in fatalities and, based on those findings, we will initiate additional measures to improve safety in the cell-tower industry," said David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health.
OSHA has estimated there are roughly 10,000 workers in the U.S. communication tower industry. Ten deaths may not seem like a huge number, but it is enough proportionally to rank the industry among the deadliest in the country.
In 2008, citing data from 2006 when 18 tower workers died, OSHA said tower climbing was "the most dangerous job in America," ranking it above occupations such as fishing and logging. Fatalities had declined since then, with only one death recorded last year.
The rise in tower fatalities comes as preliminary data from OSHA show overall workplace fatalities are down in the nine months that ended in June.
Construction managers say there is so much work this year that many crews are working around the clock and haven't taken days off in weeks. One project manager said crews are working 12- or 16-hour days and, when they get tired, forget to clip on safety lines or clip them on improperly.
Workers climb towers hundreds of feet high to replace surfboard-sized antennas and perform general maintenance, such as replacing cables and fixing broken equipment. Constantly attaching and reattaching a safety harness as climbers move about the tower can cut into speed.
Earlier this month, two climbers fell at Sprint sites. John Dailey, 49 years old, died after falling roughly 200 feet from a tower in North Carolina. He was attempting to connect his safety harness to the tower when he fell, said a spokesman for the North Carolina Department of Labor. David Huynh was working on a Sprint site at the edge of a cemetery in Eugene, Ore., when an aerial lift he was standing in tipped over, police said. Mr. Huynh is in critical condition at Oregon Health & Science University hospital in Portland, said a hospital spokeswoman.
In a statement, Sprint said safety is a top priority and that it was "deeply saddened" by the accidents. The company said it requires subcontractors to maintain written safety programs and designate one employee on site responsible for ensuring safety.
Sprint and smaller rival T-Mobile have ramped up network upgrades this year in an attempt to catch up with AT&T and Verizon, which have continued at their brisk LTE rollouts. T-Mobile and Sprint have roughly doubled their workloads over the past year, according to estimates from RBC Capital Markets.
Sprint intends to rework all 38,000 of its cell sites over about three years as part of an effort to consolidate its disparate network technologies and upgrade to LTE. The bulk of that effort is occurring this year.
The carrier is already running into constraints. In a May securities filing, Sprint said it was having problems with equipment shortages as well as "delays with vendor execution." The carrier scaled back plans to cover 250 million people with LTE by the end of the year and now plans to cover 200 million.
Alcatel-Lucent SA is one of three major contractors managing Sprint's builds, and in May the company instituted a Tower Construction Acceleration Program, which pays contractors a $3,000 bonus for finishing a site on time with no defects. A manager at one contracting company, who pointed out that some jobs pay $12,000 per site, said the bonuses encourage them to work more quickly.
The program isn't about speed; rather it is "a quality program to assure zero defects so they don't have to go back and fix anything," said Denise Panyik-Dale, a spokeswoman for Alcatel-Lucent. "Safety is incredibly important to us."
Carriers say tower climbing isn't their area of expertise, so they subcontract with specialized companies and require them to work safely. While some climbers say responsibility for safety ultimately rests on the worker, others say carriers set pricing and schedules that can create strong incentives to cut corners.
Payman Biazarikari, an Iranian immigrant, had been in the U.S. for two weeks when he fell about 160 feet to his death earlier this month on a job for nTelos, according to the Waynesboro, Va., police department. nTelos is a wireless carrier operating in several Southeastern states.
Mr. Biazarikari's resume said he had 10 years of climbing experience in Iran, according to a person involved with the investigation. nTelos didn't return messages seeking comment.
Thomas Jeglum, 24, had been climbing towers for six weeks when he fell while working on an AT&T job in Allentown, Pa., said his fiancée, Gina Cornett. He received training through his employer, Jacobs Engineering Group Inc., he said. He was enjoying his job, but "he should have never been on any tower," she said.
Jacobs Engineering said it is investigating the incident, and that some of the details described "are inconsistent with our understanding." AT&T said in a statement that contractors must fully train their employees and follow all standards "that reflect our focus on worker safety." The carrier says contractors that violate its policies are subject to termination.
Mr. Jeglum, who fell June 15, attached his harness to a part of the tower that couldn't support his weight, Ms. Cornett said. He was seriously injured, she said, and is currently at a brain rehabilitation center in San Jose, Calif.
One climber survived a fall on a T-Mobile site in Alabama earlier this year. A spokeswoman for the carrier said T-Mobile has a strong safety policy and that safety is a top priority.
Two climbers were killed on a Verizon job in Mississippi earlier this year.
"The on-the-job safety, health and wellness of our employees as well as those who perform work on our behalf, including contractors, are top priorities at Verizon Wireless," the company said in a statement.