February 17, 2015 – In a comprehensive study released today by WirelessEstimator.com identifying how many wireless technicians routinely work on elevated structures in the course of their employment, the number of tower climbers has dramatically increased to over 29,000 workers, almost triple from the last available survey taken in 2006 which put the total of tower technicians at approximately 9,800.The significant increase comes with a slightly positive upshot for the industry’s safety ranking compared to other high risk professions.
Whereas tower construction is often tagged by the media as the most dangerous job in the nation – and it clearly had been in 2006 – based upon the number of deaths per 100,000 workers used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for analysis, the wireless infrastructure industry, reaching an unacceptable 14 deaths in 2013, was the fourth deadliest profession under aircraft pilots and flight engineers.
Using multiple databases, a survey from 272 companies and information from Wireless Estimator’s 1,145 vetted contractors in its Blue Book, 29,000 elevated workers were identified by two statistical and research analysts as an acceptable conservative baseline for an industry that previously relied upon unsupported estimates.
The rollout of 4G played a considerable role in the need for additional tower technicians, but a more manageable pace has slowed new hiring. In addition, AT&T’s considerable capex cut has also cut into available work, and a number of contractors’ expansion plans have been put on hold.
Previous counts were mostly guesswork
Trade groups, training companies, federal agencies, insurance actuaries, suppliers and other companies researching and marketing employees who work on elevated structures relied upon anecdotal estimates that oftentimes ranged between 10,000 and 18,000 workers.
In an October presentation in Washington, D.C., Jonathan Adelstein, CEO of PCIA – The Wireless Infrastructure Association, said that an accurate count of tower technicians was difficult to assess since “the number has always remained a moving target”.
National Association of Tower Erectors Executive Director Todd Schlekeway stated that one of the more frequent questions he has fielded over the years has been the total of tower climbers in the nation, and had encouraged his organization and the Wireless Industry Safety Task Force’s members to participate in Wireless Estimator’s year-long survey.
CTIA has also said that they could not provide any data as to climber resources in the country.
Crew sizes, training requirements and other research identified
Company surveys provided additional information that will be helpful to the industry at large for analysis. The likelihood of stringent deadlines causing an accident or fatality were charted as well as perceived compliance with the industry’s gin pole standard. Other information is provided below.
Companies were contacted to verify the accuracy of their data if it appeared to be in contrast to known averages or industry information.
California leads with companies and climbers
California led the nation with the highest number of wireless contractors, 115, with an approximate number of climbers totaling 2,900, followed by Texas, 104 and 2,700; Florida, 95 and 2,400; Georgia, 74 and 1,900; Illinois, 51 and 1,300; and New Jersey; 43 and 1,100.
36% of wireless contractors have been in business five years or less
According to the Small Business Administration, 7 out of 10 small businesses (500 employees or less) survive at least 2 years, half at least 5 years, a third at least 10 years, and a quarter stay in business 15 or more years.
58% of responding companies maintain four crews or less
Responding companies were representative of a cross section of known company sizes. Four elevated workers were used as a baseline for a tower crew in the survey.
53% of contractors provide safety training immediately
In reference to the following question: “How long after you hire a tower climber do you put them through tower safety and rescue training, even if they have been in the industry for a while and were certified with their previous employer?“, 56% of the respondents identified that they were immediately trained. Within a month, 80% of new hires had been trained.
81% of companies have full time safety instructors/personnel
According to survey data, 19% of companies did not have a full time employee dedicated to safety.
Stringent deadlines are likely causes of accidents and fatalities
Ambitious client deadlines are considered to be a likely reason for accidents and fatalities, according to 47% of the survey’s respondents.
Accidents/Fatalities caused by non-conformance with gin pole standard
16% of respondents said that it was the least likely cause for accidents and fatalities.
Non-conformance with 100% tie-off is 75% most likely reason for deaths
In line with fatality investigations, OSHA reports and other available information, not being tied off 100% is the primary reason why the industry has a high fatality rate, according to survey data.
Improper use of/or defective safety equipment in fatalities rankings
Respondents were closely split between most likely and likely in reference to whether accidents and fatalities are caused by improper use of/or defective safety equipment.
21% presume drug use is the least likely cause of accidents/fatalities
A considerable percentage of respondents, 29%, felt that drugs and substance abuse were the least likely and seldom cause for accidents and fatalities.
31% believe lack of crane or manbasket availability causes accidents/fatalities
Respondents felt that by not having a manbasket or crane on site that it was seldom or least likely attributable to causing accidents or fatalities.
Lack of crane or manbasket seen as least likely probability for accidents
From the below graph, it can be inferred that the companies chose as likely the probability of having any of 5 out of 6 accident types described. For the case of having an accident due to non-conformance with 100% tie-off requirements, the majority chose as most likely to occur if the safety measure is not met. Least likely for accidents or fatalities occurring was if there was a lack of crane or manbasket due to budgetary constraints.
18% had an employee fall from a structure, but was not seriously injured
Survey respondents identified that properly tying off will result in safely returning home to their families.