They Gave Their Lives To Bring You The iPhone

Moneybox
A blog about business and economics.
May 22 2012 11:45 AM

Tower Climbers: The Unsung Heroes Who Gave Their Lives for the iPhone Revolution

A utility worker repairs an electrical line
A utility worker repairs an electrical line

Photograph by Chris Hondros/Getty Images.

We think of the smartphone revolution as primarily powered by geeks in Silicon Valley and Chinese parts assemblers, but all these ecosystems are built on a physical made-in-America backbone of utility towers that keep the whole thing running. Pro Publica's Liz Day and PBS Frontline's Ryan Knutson have teamed up for a fascinating look at the surprisingly high rates of death and injury in the small occupational niche that involves climbing these towers and making the system work. Unfortunately, I didn't find "tower climbing, an obscure field with no more than 10,000 workers, has a death rate roughly 10 times that of construction" to be the clearest possible statistical explanation.

But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' chart pack (PDF), construction is the fourth-deadliest sector, with 9.8 deaths per 100,000 after transportation and warehousing (13.7), mining (19.8), and the dread agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting (27.9). So if tower climbing is roughly 10 times deadlier than construction, that means it's about 3.5 times deadlier than the deadliest sector that's large enough to measure. In other words, it's really, really deadly.

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Perhaps in part because the death toll is so high, cellphone network operators don't employ these people directly. Consequently, no Verizon employees die climbing towers. Instead, the carriers rely on subcontractors that (among other things) help their brands avoid association with deadly falls and crippling injuries. Particularly poignant for longtime iPhone users like me is that by far the largest share of tower climbing deaths involved work on AT&T's network and "The death toll peaked between 2006 and 2008, as AT&T merged its network with Cingular’s and scrambled to handle traffic generated by the iPhone." I certainly remember spending plenty of time in that period being frustrated with AT&T's oft-overburdened network wishing they'd find some way to hurry up and build it out faster. I certainly didn't think of that as something people died doing even though, obviously, going way up high to the top of a tower is dangerous. 

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.