5 Terrifying Realities Of My Job As A Cell Tower Climber
We've kind of learned to live with the fact that comfort is only possible thanks to the daily suffering of unseen strangers. Just think of your cellphone -- manufacturing it required who knows how many miners and factory workers working long, dangerous shifts. All so you have something to look at on the toilet.
But even then, the phone doesn't work without a functioning cell tower. And if that tower ever stops functioning, some poor bastard has to scale the thing and fix it. If that sounds simple, well, here are some things you should know.
Getting Too Close To A Cell Tower Will Cook Your Skin
Maybe you've heard a little something about the deadly dangers of cellphones. Cell radiation, like all things, can cause cancer in rats, so some insist the only safe way to use a phone is to separate yourself from the headset with a lead-lined Magneto helmet. But the official scientific opinion on the matter, boringly, is "No, there's no evidence phones hurt you. C'mon, guys. Enough with this already." That means those of you hoping to fry your flesh with radiation will have to turn to something more powerful than phones. Like, for instance, the live antenna of a cell tower.
Yeah, you can just ask our source, "Roland," about what it's like to get too close to the signal intended to blast your dick pics to the horizon. The result is called an RF burn. "Basically, you get them by working for a few hours in front of an antenna that's powered up," says Roland. "It's exactly like a sunburn."
"Oops, missed a spot with the lotion."
Only instead of the sun, it's a giant man-made beam blasting enough radio frequency radiation to cook your goddamned flesh a little and "potentially cataracts and temporary sterility and other health issues," according to the FCC. Yes, sterility -- the first body parts to feel the burn are the eyes and the testes. You can decide for yourself which is worse. Workers are supposed to shut down individual sectors to avoid exposing themselves to the live antennas, but some workers (like Roland) have to turn the antenna on for tests. And the government sets limits on the permissible level of radiation at cell tower work sites, but some towers reach seven times that limit. As we'll find out in a moment, these guys aren't always sticklers for safety regulations.
Of course, the tower is also full of wires carrying scary amounts of juice. "If you touch the end of a live cable, it will burn a hole in your finger," Roland says. "Or your arm, if you brush up against it, it's rare this happens, because we are scared of that shit. No one really wants to die for your cellphone signal."
Sorry, no one cares that much if you catch 'em all.
And yet ...
It's The Most Dangerous Job In America
A couple of years ago, analysts found that the death rate among cell tower workers was 183.6 per 100,000, making it the most dangerous job in America. Now, it's possible they came up with that high figure because it was a particularly bad year in a comparatively small field, but it still adds up to a startlingly high probability of dying -- which seems kind of believable, considering their every day looks like this:
"Shit, did I leave my tool box down there?"
A cellphone tower can easily be 400 or 500 feet tall, and that's a fall you wouldn't even survive in the Fast & Furious universe. Now, in theory, you're fine even if you lose your grip -- you should be wearing safety gear which secures you tightly to the tower, or even a full-body harness and a lift you can sit in:
"Please keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle until the end of the ride."
In reality, however, you'll often wind up clinging for dear life, like so:
"OK, this CrossFit crap has officially gone too far."
Roland mainly services towers that are owned by AT&T, but he and most teams don't work directly for AT&T, with all their regulations and lawyers screaming to the company about liability. AT&T hires contractors, and contractors hire subcontractors, who hire guys like Roland. At that level, the rules get a bit more lax. For example, they sometimes pay him in Walmart gift cards instead of money ("which is shady," he says, "but it's to help avoid taxes"), and sometimes workers don't bother to attach their safety harnesses, instead opting for "free-climbing."
It's faster than using the harness, and since they're paid by the job instead of the hour, they have every reason to want to save time. Every reason except, you know, not winding up splattered on the pavement below. As Roland puts it, "Are 10 minutes worth your life?"
Walmart's low prices will still be there by the time you finish these.
Roland has slipped twice himself, each time because of dew on the tower's steel. Both times, he managed to grab a bar before the harness came into play. If he doesn't manage to make that grab in those fractions of a second, the harness will catch him and stretch -- not quite like a bungee, but enough so he wouldn't stop instantly (which could itself cause injury). Then the elastic would send him crashing right into the tower. That no doubt hurts like hell, but not as much as impacting the terrain at terminal velocity. Though we suppose you could argue that, in such a circumstance, you'd feel nothing at all.
So now imagine you're nervously climbing up a tower for the first time, hoping your little strap will hold your weight if you slip, when suddenly ...
Yeah, if you already get cold sweats thinking about climbing that high with only a safety harness that may or may not be attached to anything, try to imagine being that high up and running into this:
"How hard of a landing could a 100-foot jump really be?"
It's surprisingly common to stumble upon beehives a few inches from your face. "Finding a hive 200 feet up and no fast way down is a pants-shitting experience for me," says Roland. "You are very careful to not bang or drop tools and disturb them."
Workers also run into lots of bird nests, which probably sounds like no big deal after the whole bee thing, but they'll actually shut down the project entirely. Some species are protected by federal law and can only be moved with a special permit. Since the climbers are not qualified bird experts, the sight of any nest means they're forced to stop until the right professionals can be called in.
"You called for the bird?"
Of course, this assumes that they're worried about getting caught. One time, Roland's team saw a nest and had to climb right back down, then the next tower on the list had a nest as well. Not wanting to give up both jobs, one of the men climbed up and chucked it off, baby birds and all, and continued his business. "I didn't agree with it," says Roland, "but I didn't want to lose $800 either, so I kept my mouth shut."
On A Tower, The World Is Your Toilet
It is said that the greatest joy a man can experience is peeing off a 400-foot tower. There have been entire operas written about it (probably).
"I pee off the tower daily," says Roland. "We are up there for six to eight hours and drink lots of energy drinks and water. It's pretty cool to see how far you can make it go." And the real novelty in watching the pee drop is that it won't stay in a steady stream -- not when it falls that long a distance. Instead, it sort of dissipates, like water blown out of a mister fan. Roland recalls one typical day when the man atop the tower let loose without warning. "By the time it got to us," he says, smiling at the memory of that golden spray, "it had a good 15 foot of coverage." It fell on everyone gathered there, including the safety inspector from OSHA and his gleaming white truck.
We're assuming that this is done carefully out of range of the antenna blasting the RF radiation. Otherwise, you're going to wind up having an awkward conversation with a very skeptical doctor.
"Look, it's been a triple shift. Please tell me if this was from sexing a microwave so I can give you the right burn cream."
And yes, there is protocol for safe tower-pissing. When a worker decides it's time to go number one, he's supposed to yell the official verbal warning to those below: "yellow rain." "If you don't and someone gets misted," says Roland, as in the case of the climber who baptized the OSHA rep, "you're getting an ass-whooping."
On a similar note ...
Deadly Objects Get Dropped With Alarming Frequency
"Things are dropped at least twice a day," says Roland. "It depends who is on the tower and how hungover they are."
We assume the possibility of getting peed on falls under the same umbrella.
Maybe you've heard that urban legend about how a penny dropped from the top of the Empire State Building will gain enough force to kill someone walking below. That legend is ... not at all true, because air stops objects from accelerating endlessly. But heavy objects dropped from that height will absolutely spill your brain matter onto your boots. "A wrench would reach terminal velocity before it hit the ground," says Roland. Imagine a major-league pitcher throwing a 120-mph fastball at your head -- only instead of a baseball, it's a crescent wrench.
"That would shatter any part of you it hits. The hard hats we wear would not protect us from that. They protect us from bumping our heads and lighter objects, like rolls of tape or small nuts." Oh, and if you're not wearing a hard hat, from that height, a dropped tape measure can kill you.
Any of these? Dentists will have to identify you by your teeth.
His first week on the job, Roland was holding a rope to keep an antenna steady (meaning he couldn't leap out of the way) and had to watch helplessly as a tiny speck came hurtling down like a meteor. He had no idea what it was, or how much it would hurt on impact. "I watched this object fall for four seconds coming straight at me, and I'm screwed. It pegged my elbow." It turned out to be a roll of tape ... but he still had a bruise the size of a softball for two weeks. "My whole arm went numb when it hit, so it didn't hurt, but that was probably just some nerve damage. After that, I was part of the team, and they knew I could be trusted to keep them safe up there, because I was willing to take the hit."
Helpfully, when someone drops something, they'll shout "headache!" as a warning. "We can tell what was dropped by how intensely they scream 'headache.' Also, I still don't know if it's better to stay where you are or run to avoid getting hit." If you're on the ladder, though, there's no running -- the decision's out of your hands. You simply stay still, hold your protected head high, and pray to every god that it's not a wrench.
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