Image: Crane collapse
Mary Altaffer  /  AP
Rescue crews work at the scene of a crane collapse last month on New York's Upper East Side, where a 200-foot construction crane fell onto a nearby apartment building and to the street, killing the operator and another construction worker. Crane safety is getting extra scrutiny following an alarming number of deaths in recent months.
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/22/2008 5:31:25 PM ET 2008-06-22T21:31:25

Bridget Pierce called her fiancé, Jonathon Guilford, on his mobile phone at 2 p.m. May 16 when he was on a break from his job as a cellular-phone tower maintenance climber on a project in Indiana.

Pierce, who lives in Georgia, wanted to tell him she loved him before she left on a trip.

“He said, ‘OK baby, I love you too,’” she recalls.

That was the last time Pierce heard his voice.

At 6:30 that evening, Guilford, 25, plunged more than 200 feet to his death.

Why he fell from the tower is unclear. Occupational safety experts in Indiana are investigating.

But his death is one of a disturbing rash of worker fatalities in recent months in high-risk professions including cell-tower climbers and crane operators.

Safety and workplace advocates point to a host of reasons for the spike in these deaths, including a lack of government oversight, the waning influence of unions and, most recently, the lagging economy and rising fuel prices, which have put a squeeze on building projects that require risky work.

“These things happen in good as well as bad times, but in an economic downturn there’s more pressure on people to get more done for less time and less money,” says Michael Belzer, associate research scientist with the Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations at the University of Michigan.

The most recent data on workplace fatalities show that deaths rose 2 percent in 2006 to 5,840, the highest level since 2002. The rate of fatal injuries per 100,000 workers remained flat over that period, according to the Department of Labor.

Deaths due to falls, however, have been rising over the past 10 years, reaching a record 827 in 2006, the Labor Department reports. And workplace safety experts say anecdotal evidence points to 2008 being a particularly deadly year, especially among high-risk building and construction jobs.

In late May, a worker was killed on a huge MGM Mirage construction project in Las Vegas when he was caught in the machinery of a crane, the sixth fatality since the project began. Federal and local agencies are investigating along with the Center for Construction Research and Training. The center, a federally funded, union-affiliated non-profit, is expected to investigate whether the project was rushed, among other factors, according to a Wall Street Journal article earlier this month.

There has been a string of crane-related deaths in recent months, not just in Las Vegas but in New York and Miami as well. A crane accident in New York last month killed two workers, bringing the total crane deaths in the Big Apple to nine since March, already surpassing the total for the last 10 years, according to an Associated Press analysis on regulations in the crane industry.

Guilford's death in Indiana was the sixth fatal fall for a cell tower worker in just two months, also an “unusually high number,” says Craig Lekutis, president of WirelessEstimator.com, a Web site that tracks the wireless construction industry.

Cell tower climber/erector is considered the nation's most dangerous job on a per-capita basis, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent data.

“I would say of all the cell-tower deaths, pressure to get it done fast contributed to every one of those deaths,” says Lekutis.

The telecommunications industry, he adds, operates under thin margins “so people have to constantly ensure that they’re meeting profit projections. A lot of company owners put pressure on employees that they have to get the job done in a requisite amount of time.”

At least two of the cell tower climbers killed were working for contractors on the expansion of AT&T’s high-speed network data service, known as 3G, that will be used by Apple's much-hyped new version of the iPhone introduced earlier this month.

Guilford, who was working on the 3G project, was employed by All Around Towers, an AT&T contractor,

Sean Keefer, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Labor, says the agency is looking into whether Guilford had the appropriate training and whether his supervisors were doing what they should have to ensure safe work conditions. “That answer is still being looked at,” he said.

AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel adamantly denied that the cell-tower worker fatalities had anything to do with the 3G deployment or iPhone introduction.

“First of all, there was no schedule to complete our 3G network in June,” he said. “The accidents you read about were just that."

He added: "It’s sad that this happened and terrible for the people involved."

Siegel said that AT&T has been building out its 3G network for years and that currently the system is deployed in 280 U.S. metropolitan markets, a figure expected to rise to 350 by the end of 2008.

While Siegel says there was no set deadline, the company did send out a news release May 21 saying: “By the end of June, connecting to AT&T’s 3G mobile broadband service will be as speedy as logging onto the high-speed Internet service that many consumers enjoy at home.”

“Expectations are as important as deadlines, especially with the release of the iPhone and all the press," says industry analyst Jack Gold of J. Gold Associates in Northboro, Mass. "Even though they say there is no specific deadline, consumers expect that when they buy a 3G phone it will work on a 3G network.”

But the pressure to roll out new networks is not just about AT&T and the iPhone. It’s industrywide and has been ratcheted even higher with the proposed merger of Verizon and Alltel, says Lekutis of WirelessEstimator. “Whoever is first up to bat typically wins in this industry,” he says.

Unfortunately, when companies try to speed up, workers may end up getting a bit lost in the shuffle.

“You have a situation where it’s push, push, push, and safety takes a back seat,” says Bill Kojola, with the office of safety and health at the AFL-CIO.

But even though it may be easy to point the finger at companies and real-estate developers when it comes to a breakdown in safety on the job, sometimes workers need to bear some of the responsibility.

“A lot of times, they just don’t practice 100 percent fall protection,” notes Lekutis. “In any profession, people take shortcuts occasionally.”

For example, crane operators have the ultimate decision when it comes to making a lift or not, says Steve McCown, chair of the worker safety practice group at Littler Mendelson, one of the nation's largest employment law firms. “They can refuse to do something if they think it’s unsafe,” he says.

Easier said than done, counters Kojola of the AFL-CIO. “If you slow down the job because you insist on doing all the safety procedures, you can get bounced from the job,” he says.

Also working against crane safety, he adds, is that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been “dragging its feet on finalizing new crane standards,” which haven’t been updated since the 1970s.

As of publication time, OSHA officials were unable to provide a comment on why new standards have not been adopted.

While standards would go a long way toward ensuring safety, Patrick Howey, executive director of the National Association of Tower Erectors, offers these suggestions for the industry right now: “Tower owners, broadcasters, carriers and general contractors must ensure that only qualified contractors end up on job sites.  Deadlines to complete jobs cannot be unrealistic or inflexible to the point that only fly-by-night operators will take the work, or that qualified tower erectors will be pressured to push their crews beyond safe limits.”

And, he adds, “companies who can underbid jobs because of their lack of proper safety training and procedures must not be hired. Employers of tower climbers must provide proper training and proper equipment to do the job safely.  And then tower climbers must use what they have learned to make good decisions that will allow them to go home safely at the end of each day.”

Despite the pressures, no job is worth dying for, and that means employees have to be diligent about taking all the safety precautions available to them.

These high-risk occupations often do attract daredevils. Who else would climb to such heights as part of their daily grind?

“It has to be someone who really likes risks and testing the limits, and pushing things,” says workplace psychologist Robert Hogan. “But that person is also capable of following procedures.”

When a worker fails to follow proper procedures and they work for a supervisor who is concerned only about the bottom line, he adds, “it’s a toxic brew.”

Guilford’s fiancé Pierce says she has no idea why he fell to his death and is waiting to hear from investigators in the case.

But, she maintains, “he always wore his safety stuff.” She adds: “He loved his job, and he had no fear.”

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