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The most dangerous job in America: Keeping iPhones connected

AT&T blamed for deaths of cell-tower climbers

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An investigation into the deaths of workers putting up cell towers has shown how US network operators distance themselves from those taking the risks, with AT&T's dash to provide iPhone connectivity allegedly killing more than most.

The investigation was carried out by ProPublica and (US TV show) Frontline, which have spent the last couple of years disentangling the chains of subcontracting subcontractors to pin every cell tower death on a specific network operator. The investigation alleged that AT&T's drive to deploy 3G and integrating the recently acquired Cingular's infrastructure cost the lives of 15 climbers since 2003.

That number is greater than the number of deaths estimated by the investigation for Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile combined (one, two and five respectively), though they weren't pushing out so aggressively and thus were less likely to put pressure on the subcontractors.

The head of the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration said in 2008 that climbing towers was the most dangerous job in America, for which those involved receive around $10 an hour. But more importantly, the investigation revealed, they're routinely required to break safety regulations in order to meet unrealistic deadlines which are passed down through chains of contractors – ensuring that the network operator is well clear of any responsibility or liability. That includes working at night to avoid disrupting customers, and free-climbing across towers to save time.

As one example, cited by the investigation, AT&T pays $187 to have a new radio head fitted to a mast, but by the time the invoice has made its way though the chain, the company actually putting up the kit apparently gets only $93, and (by accident or design) AT&T won't be on site to ensure that company policies on health and safety are respected.

The only exception, it seems, is Verizon, which generally deals directly with contractors and is described by one contributor to the programme as "a golden ticket", proving that it can be done if the operators desire it to be so.

But dealing with subcontractors is simpler, and in a statement AT&T is adamant that "Our contracts with these companies require strict compliance with state and federal laws and regulations". The operator also points out that things are improving, with zero fatalities in 2011.

That may be down to improved safety procedures, or perhaps the fact that 3G is adequately deployed and the world's economy is tanking at the moment. Smaller radios, requiring less power, might be a feature too, but we'll not find out until 4G deployments start in earnest next year and the steel monkeys put their lives back on the line to keep us connected. ®

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