Cell tower worker Kris Runyon, 39, fell to his death on Tuesday, May 2 in Meridian, MS. Local news station WAPT reports the incident occurred at about 7 pm when Runyon was 228 feet off the ground on a cell tower. A co-worker witnessed the incident and the county coroner reported that Runyon was wearing safety equipment designed to prevent a fatal fall.
The industry news source WirelessEstimator.com reports that Mr. Runyon was employed by D&K Nationwide Communications. D&K is a subcontractor to MasTec, a business that provides engineering, construction, and maintenance services to communication firms. Mr. Runyon was likely involved in an LTE upgrade for AT&T. According to Wireless Estimator, Crown Castle owns the guyed tower on which Runyon was working. Crown Castle describes itself as the “nation’s largest provider of shared wireless infrastructure.”
Just eight days ago, the Dallas Morning News reported on the death of another communication tower worker. Isidro Morales, 49, was fatally injured on April 24 when a boom truck crane toppled onto a cell tower platform where he was working. The incident occurred at about 3 p.m. near Dallas’ Arts District.
WirelessEstimator.com reports that the tower at which Mr. Morales is used by T-Mobile and is also owned by Crown Castle. Mr. Morales was working for RMCI Construction, a firm that provides technical and construction services to the wireless telecommunication industry. (The company’s website has a tab labeled “safety” but it says: “Under construction. Check back soon!”)
The news reports of Mr. Morales’ and Mr. Runyon’s deaths, and the layers of companies involved in each of fatalities, reminded me of the 2012 joint investigation by PBS Frontline and ProPublica on cell tower deaths. The investigation examined the outsourcing model used by the communications industry and its implications for worker safety.
AT&T, Verizon, and other wireless providers promise customers uninterrupted service which creates intense pressure on the subcontracted repair and maintenance crews to keep up. OSHA admits the difficulty it faces holding the cell service providers and tower owners responsible when worker injuries and fatalities occur — even when these firms create the hazards that contribute to the harm.
Two- or three-person crews are dispatched to both nearby and remote locations. As one tower worker told me, “you just never know what you’re up against,” referring to the conditions of the towers they are expected to climb. There’s pressure to get the job done as quickly as possible which can lead little time for all the necessary safety checks: looking for wear and tear on lanyards, the adequacy of anchors, defects on buckles and ladders, and the compatibility and body weight limits of the equipment.
In response to the Frontline and ProPublica investigation, as well as its recognition of the significant number of communication tower deaths and injuries, the Labor Department and OSHA took several steps.* In 2014, OSHA chief David Michaels sent a letter to employers in the communication tower industry. He noted that inspectors would
“be paying particular attention to contract oversight issues, and will obtain contracts in order to identify not only the company performing work on the tower, but the tower owner, carrier, and other responsible parties in the contracting chain.”
I’m interested in finding out the results of that effort. Was OSHA successful or stymied in holding responsible more than just the company directly performing the work?
Another initiative announced in 2014 is a joint industry-government communication worker apprenticeship program. Telecommunications Industry Registered Apprenticeship Program (TIRAP) includes both technical competencies and safety training. As of March 2017, five employers have registered for TIRAP. These firms are currently recruiting apprentices.
TIRAP’s executive board includes representatives from several cellular carriers, as well as with Crown Castle. Richard Cullum is Crown Castle’s manager of quality assurance, engineering and operations, and his responsibilities include:
“operational standards and procedures related tower inspections, construction and maintenance repairs and for assuring internal and vendor compliance with such standards.”
Investigations into the work-related deaths of Kris Runyon and Isidro Morales are ongoing, both by OSHA but likely by the firms involved. I’ll be eager to learn how Crown Castle and the other companies determine what went wrong and how to share responsibility (or not) for the hazards that caused two men to lose their lives.
*In June 2017, OSHA and the FCC published a booklet “Communication Tower Best Practices.”