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FRONTLINE: Cell Tower Deaths

Jay Guilford, top, fell to his death in 2008 while installing cell phone antennas on a tower in Indiana.
Courtesy of Bridget Pierce Guilford
Jay Guilford, top, fell to his death in 2008 while installing cell phone antennas on a tower in Indiana.

Airs Friday, May 25, 2012 at 9 p.m. on KPBS TV

Across the country, workers have been falling to their deaths from cell phone towers. To satisfy the ever-increasing demand for cell phone service, tower climbers install and service cell antennas, a job that requires them to ascend hundreds of feet.

In "Cell Tower Deaths," a joint investigation with ProPublica, FRONTLINE correspondent Martin Smith finds that over the last decade, the tower climbers who are building and servicing America’s cellular infrastructure are about 10 times more likely than an average construction worker to die on the job.

High death rates among climbers are caused in part by demanding project deadlines, which lead some climbers to cut corners on safety equipment or to “free climb,” a dangerous practice in which the climber is not attached to the tower. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations prohibit free climbing, yet it was involved in about half of the fatalities FRONTLINE and ProPublica examined.


FRONTLINE reveals that the major cell phone companies are shielded from accountability in the deaths by relying on layers of subcontracting to carry out the tower work. Subcontracting drives costs down and makes it difficult for the government to discipline the major cell carriers. “Just through their own policy they layer themselves away from it,” say Randy Gray, a former OSHA inspector.

“Legally, there’s no way we can really get to that company,” says Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary of labor for OSHA. “Our problem in this industry is that you have these little contractors that may set off in their pickup truck, you know, … and may never have any contact, face-to-face contact, with their contractors.”

"Cell Tower Deaths" is a FRONTLINE production with RAIN Media, Inc., in partnership with ProPublica. The film is written and produced by Travis Fox. Martin Smith is senior producer and correspondent. Reporting was by FRONTLINE’s Ryan Knutson and ProPublica’s Liz Day. The series senior producer of FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath. The executive producer of FRONTLINE is David Fanning.

FRONTLINE is on Facebook, and follow @frontlinepbs on Twitter. ProPublica is on Facebook, and you can follow @ProPublica on Twitter.

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Watch Cell Tower Deaths Preview on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

In "Cell Tower Deaths," FRONTLINE and ProPublica investigate the hidden cost that comes with the demand for better and faster cell phone service.