The incident report details are horrific and heartbreaking. If this was a radio broadcast, my editors and I would likely preface what I am about to relate with a warning: “The following report contains material that may be disturbing.” On July 2nd at 2:22 p.m., an emergency call came in to the Cynthiana, Kentucky-Harrison County 911 operators to report that “a man has been decapitated his head and arm are on the ground.” The follow-up report, made available by the Harrison County sheriff’s office, explains that Joel Metz, age 28, working for Fortune Wireless on a Verizon Wireless cell tower – Wireless Cellular Telephone Antenna Site #1282822 – was raising a winch that broke, releasing a line and load to free fall. It struck Metz, killing him instantly. A co-worker, Brandon Vaughn, was also on the tower at the time, approximately 235 feet from the ground. The wire that broke landed on a live Bluegrass Energy line so that the incoming 911 call also said, “they need someone to shut it off immediately so no one is electrocuted.”
According to the incident report, Metz and Vaughn had been on the tower on Waits Road in Harrison County to raise and then secure a boom assembly that had been fitted with four directional cellular telephone antennas. During the sheriff’s office examination of the scene immediately following the incident, the crew foreman who was on the job site at the time said that while Metz and Vaughn were up on the tower, he “heard a loud noise that he identified as the winch line breaking or becoming disengaged.” A third worker “was operating the winch that was lifting the boom assembly in place.” The incident report goes on to say that during the examination of the winch line, the investigators – detectives from the Harrison County sheriff’s office – “were shown the shackle block that had been used as the securement/lifting point in the rigging.” The report notes that the shackle block “was observed as having no “C” clevice that had been there and that was used to secure the rigging to the tower. The shackle block had no observable damage to the clevice pin hole on the shackle block so it was not determined how the clevice became disconnected.” As related by the sheriff’s office by phone shortly after the incident and in the incident report, a search for the “C” clevice – a type of pin – was never found. The Kentucky Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is investigating the incident.
Established in 2005, Fortune Wireless is based in Indianapolis, IN. Neither Fortune Wireless nor Cornerstone Wireless Construction Services, both owned by Fortune Industries since 2008, have any previous OSHA inspections listed on OSHA’s publicly available database. Fortune Wireless’s website lists among its clients Verizon Wireless, AT&T Wireless, T-Mobile, US Cellular, Sprint, Nortel Networks, Cricket, General Dynamics, Bechtel, Nokia Siemens Networks, Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson, Centennial Communications and Alltel Wireless.
In a statement, Verizon Wireless said, “Our thoughts are with the family, loved ones and colleagues of the worker who died in the July 2 incident near Cynthiana, Kentucky. We are working closely with our vendor and applicable agencies such as the Sheriff’s department in the investigation of the situation.” Fortune Wireless has not yet responded to a request for comment on the incident.
OSHA calls fatalities “preventable”
On February 25, OSHA issued a news release expressing its concern about the high number of fatal incidents among cell tower workers. “More communication tower workers were killed in 2013 than in the previous two years combined, and four more tower-related deaths have already occurred in 2014. Every one of those deaths was preventable,” wrote OSHA. “We are very concerned about this sharp rise. The fatality rate in this industry is extremely high – and tower workers have a risk of fatal injury perhaps 25 to 30 times higher than the risk for the average American worker. This is clearly unacceptable,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, David Michaels in a statement. “At OSHA,” said Michaels, “we are reaching out to educate industry and workers and providing free small businesses consultations. We’ve also increased our enforcement in this industry.”
As part of this effort OSHA, on February 10th, OSHA sent a letter to 99 communications tower employers asking them to join OSHA in, as Michaels said in remarks to the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE) at its annual conference in February “preventing these needless deaths.” According to the list of recipients made available by OSHA, neither Fortune Wireless nor its parent company Fortune Industries received that letter. Nor did Goodman Networks or Microwave Transmission Systems, the AT&T subcontractors engaged to service the Texas communication tower where worker Cody Freeman fell and died on June 17th.
Joel Metz was the eighth US cell tower worker to die on the job in 2014. As I reported for The Pump Handle on March 31st , by that point in the year, 6 cell tower workers had died on the job in 12 weeks. Since then, in an incident that became the year’s seventh cell tower worker fatality, 28 year old tower technician Cody Freeman fell from a “self-supporting” tower in downtown San Angelo, Texas. According to news reports of the June 17th incident, Freeman was employed by Microwave Transmission Systems, Inc. of Richardson Texas, which had been subcontracted by Goodman Networks, an AT&T contractor, whose service was on the tower. Reports of the incident say that when the San Angelo Fire Department arrived on the scene, Freeman “was deceased.” He was doing repair work on the tower and reportedly “experienced issues with his safety equipment and fell.” A cell tower industry news site, Comtrain, reports that the tower was being retrofitted for cellular use, having originally been built to accommodate heavy equipment that was part of the old AT&T long distance network. OSHA is investigating this incident.
Time pressures and equipment failures
Speaking by phone earlier this month, Wally Reardon, Workers at Heights Safety & Health Initiative project coordinator, expressed concern that cell tower “crews often don’t take the time to thoroughly check equipment because of arduous schedules that have them driving long distances to job sites, often late at night.” This, he said, means that workers are often “tired when climbing.” Adding to these pressures, said Reardon, is the fact that “a lot of companies are not paying for driving time.”
Reardon also considers the “layers of contractors” involved in the cell tower business part of the ongoing safety problems in the industry. The situation muddies who takes ultimate responsibility for equipment integrity, work schedules, and tower worker training and other aspects of this work’s safety.
Earlier this year, NATE and the Wireless Industry Safety Task Force launched a “100% Tie-Off Awareness 24/7 Campaign” designed to “to ensure a safer work environment and prevent future accidents.” AT&T Wireless, Verizon Wireless and Goodman Networks are among the companies participating. And on July 17th, OSHA issued a directive designed to improve safety of work on communication towers that involves what’s called a “personnel hoist.” Failures of equipment that did not involve “tie-off” issues or these lifts, however, appear to have been involved in at least half this year’s eight cell tower worker fatalities
Also worth noting are other health and safety issues involved in this inherently dangerous work. Last week, on July 25th a cell tower worker in Florida suffering heat exhaustion had to be rescued by the local county fire department. At the time, 1:30 p.m., 28 year old Justin Denman, from Texas, was working 260 feet up on a 350-foot high Talquin Electric microwave tower in Crawfordville, Fla. The search and rescue crew arrived about an hour later and were able to lower Denman safely to the ground. The temperature at the time was reported to be 87ºF.
Asked about visible improvements since OSHA issued its memo to regional administrators about increased enforcement in the cell tower industry, Reardon said, “No….Nothing is changing.”
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Ensia, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.