Tower Climber’s Real #1 Problem?

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I think I figured it out! Boy, do I feel stupid! I always thought that safety was the #1 problem in the tower industry until back at the TIRAP kickoff in DC I talked to Liz Day and she straightened me out. What is the #1 problem for tower climbers? I used to think it was safety, well, I was wrong. It’s really getting paid. Getting paid for your work and your expenses. In the past 2 years of talking to climbers this is what I am being told. Also up there, keeping or getting a job. It seems that most climbers do not stay employed for very long unless they work for a good solid small company. Many worry about where they will be working a month from now.  Many worry about getting laid off or fired. Companies worry about the customer paying them for the work, for expenses, and for change orders. Safety is really not in the top 5!

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First off, I think that it’s impressive that AT&T is taking a lead role in all the tower associations and certifications. They have a great guy, Art Pregler, running the NWSA for the certifications, as well as on the board for TIRAP, (the apprenticeship program). AT&T is going the extra mile to prove that AT&T is doing more than ever to improve safety in the field. I know many of you are not a fan of the carriers but they appear to be stepping up their involvement in safety. I believe that they really want to help. They are involved in NATE, TIRAP, and NWSA to do all that they can to make climbing safer. No matter what most of you think of the carriers, they generate millions of dollars of work. I think most of you now know not to bid low when you respond any bids for work. Margins matter so make sure you get paid fairly.

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Quick Review of problem ranking:

  1. Getting paid by employer or customer.
  2. Getting expense money. Getting paid for Change Orders.
  3. Where will I work next month?
  4. Will I get fired/laid off if I say something?
  5. Being away from home.
  6. Safety!

Let me verify the #1 problem for tower climbers. If safety were the #1 problem then more climbers would have responded to the OSHA RFI. Let’s look at the OSHA RFI where OSHA asked for safety input responses of the tower climbers. Many of the responses came from the training companies, NATE, NWSA, and business owners. I am beginning to see that the business owners and industry dog-tags_clearbackgrondorganizations will need to take the lead in safety. There has been a great response by business owners and safety companies. The organizations like NATE, NWSA, and the Hubble Foundation all seem to have responded. Don’t get me wrong, there were over 150 tower climbers that responded either through Wireless Estimator’s great website to submit or direct on the OSHA’s website. Many of them responded under the name of Anonymous because they were afraid of getting fired. The brave ones who responded told OSHA the problems in the industry, including the money problems. The ones who didn’t respond had many excuses, mostly because they don’t’ trust OSHA. Let me punch a hole in this theory, OSHA put out an RFI to ask the climbers for input, why would they do that if they didn’t want to learn? So what if they never climbed, they are trying to learn what is really going on before more people die. 

However, one thing that fills most climbers with fear, getting fired! Apparently many tower climbers don’t want to rock the boat. They want to keep their jobs so they deal with poor safety work conditions and don’t tell anyone that their company really sucks when it comes to safety. Why? They don’t want to get fired. They really like getting paid and feeding their families. That is what part of this industry is coming to. I feel bad when I think of how hard many climbers struggle to keep their jobs while others spend most of their money on booze and pot. The climbing industry has so many extremes. I have to admit, some of the best people I know are climbers, but then again some of the worst people I know are in this business. I plan to put a book out of all the climber’s stories, but I won’t name any names because so many people are scared of what is really going on and that they will labeled a rat. It seems like most companies care more about getting the job done no matter what for that payment at the end of the rainbow. They play the odds with safety. I wonder how many are properly trained or even have the proper safety gear. 

For all of you that responded to the RFI, thank you. I really appreciate the fact that OSHA did this for the tower climbing industry and I think that all of you that responded deserve a great big appreciative pat on the back and you have my deepest gratitude for taking the time to show you really care about improving safety in the industry. Even if you responded anonymously you did your part, good job!

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The way I see it is because safety is not #1 on most climber’s mind, is it? I talked to hundreds of climbers via email and phone over the last 2 years and they would all agree that money is the number one issue. They are more worried about getting paid and getting their expense money more than safety. Don’t get me wrong, they care about safety, but in reality they have bills to pay and they are really tired of getting screwed over. Safety is down there, in the top 5, but not in the top 3. I even spoke to Liz Day on this topic and she agreed. She said that everyone said this was the #1 issue but no one wants to go public with it because it creates serious issues between the customers and the workers.

The money issue is really the top problem in the industry. Getting paid, getting all the pay, and getting the expense money. Most field workers want to get paid for the time they work and for the job and for the expenses they incur. It’s field work, there are so many expenses for travel and living and parts and supplies. Many people don’t get paid for one or all of these. You need to take some of the companies to claims court to get paid. They gamble that you won’t. The other thing they do is play on stupidity for the teams that don’t get a signed scope of work. Understand what you are being asked to do. I can’t believe how many people would make fun of me for saying “understand the SOWand then complain that they didn’t get paid, why do you think that is? Did you even read the SOW or did you just assume you knew what to do? Did you ASS-u-ME? Old saying, when you assume you make an ASS out of U and ME. That’s why we get things in writing because when we do favors and something is wrong someone feels like they got screwed. This is very common in the wireless industry. This should be business, not gambling.

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Don’t get me wrong, there are scum buckets in every industry, in the wireless industry you have them on all sides. Unfortunately many of them are the lowest bidder, the ones that you can’t believe they are doing it so cheap. You also have climbers that lie, cheat, and steal. We all have stories about both if you have been in the industry for over 5 years. Getting paid isn’t just the contractor’s issue, although many of them struggle to get paid or the customer drags out the closeout so they don’t’ have to pay in the allocated 30 or 60 or 90 days. I know carriers pushing for net 120, can you imagine 120 days after acceptance you get paid? Anyway, most climbers, contractors and employees, worry about getting paid or where they will be working in a month if this work dries up. It is very similar to construction, like it or not. You work, and then you don’t. You get paid, and then you don’t. Rinse, repeat.

I am surprised how many companies don’t pay their employees. I got screwed out of expense money once, $5K, where I had to go to the New Jersey Department of labor for justice. I did get paid, because I took days off of work, got all of my documentation and logs together, and had a great case to present to the judge so I got paid. I kept good records. For all of you that think your company will do that, good luck! I hear that all the time, because people really hate paperwork. For all of you, learn the hard way.

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Keeping the job is tough. Getting laid off really sucks, but it is very common in this business. If a company asks you not to work because they may call you back soon, don’t hold your breath. Instead look at the industry to see what is going on. I remember when AT&T was going to roll out a new build and then they didn’t leaving Mastec with egg in their eye after they ramped up for the work that never came. Big hit to them for the training. The funny thing is that AT&T cried the blues about not having the money to do that, you know, the company that just paid $49B for DirecTV, didn’t have the money for the rollout. They should do something with the AWS-3 bands, something has to happen there, right? They don’t owe the climbers jobs, they owe the stockholders a profit, I get that, just do better planning and stop making poor plans, that’s all I ask.

OK, back to the point. Many employees complain about getting fired because their company didn’t want to contribute to unemployment benefits or they get accused of poor workmanship or something else that is very hard to prove. Then the company will hire people when they need them when the work picks back up. Hey, welcome to free enterprise. All companies want to hire Einstein’s yet they all want to pay for grunts. Am I right? By the way, if there is a drug test and you test positive, that’s a tough one to fight. I think that POT is the one thing that people lose their jobs over most of the time. Even though many of you argue the legality of POT, it doesn’t matter what you think, it matters what company policy is and if you get caught. For all of you that want to argue that POT is not a drug, I don’t care, neither is alcohol but if your company has a policy about being on the tower drunk, then you will get fired. If you are on the tower and you are high and you fail a drug test, then you will probably get fired. If there is an accident and you test positive for any of these, then you will get fired and the company will lay all the blame on you. But hey, from the feedback I get, most of you just don’t care.

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Having a good customer really helps. I look at Verizon Wireless and see that they are starting to use the same contractors over and over again. Do you know why? They are learning that you need to trust your contractors. To Verizon it isn’t always about the lowest bidder, but the lowest proven qualified bidder. This way they have crews and companies they trust and the shareholders are happy. I see that as a great balance. Notice I said proven because many people can look good on paper, but these crews have proven their worth by doing quality work repeatedly.

So when making a stand for safety, most climbers believe they have it figured out. They think what they do is the safest they can be. Maybe it is. They are still there, right? However, their real worry is getting paid. They want to work and get paid, that is the real issue here. I overlooked that when I first got into this. For some reason I thought safety was the #1 issue, when in reality it’s #4 or #5 after pay, expense money, and working. Many climbers have other issues, family, friends, or addictions that they will put ahead of safety. It’s out there. Some guys just like the rush of taking chances because they don’t think it will happen to them.

One of the reasons for poor safety is because many companies cut back due to cutting margins to win business. How about when the company tries to win the business by lowering their bids? They may cut back manpower, but workers bring in the money. Safety costs money! Safety training and equipment is very easy to cut. They all cost money and they think that no one will miss those extra fisk, Petzl IDs, ropes or rope grabs if they just disappear from the new crews kits. Or they won’t be replaced.

Lowest bidders come from the RFP process. The RFP process is hard, it is a tough business. They take time to respond to, they are generally too vague and miss details, and they take a lot of people to work on both sides. Then you pick a winner or loser depending on the margin to win. When you low bid you may expect to make it up in change orders and they you get a strike against you for too many change orders, but the reality is that you need to identify the problems in the scope prior. If you do work outside of the scope, you deserve a change order, but get it approved first! Understand the job prior to arriving to the site if at all possible. With all the site documentation out there you should have some idea of what your crews are getting into. Take the time to study the job’s scope of work!

This is why when you bid on 50 sites at a time, it is very hard to judge what will need to be done. That is where the GC will push the crews. The crews need to make some common sense decisions and stand firm on pricing. That is easier said than done, especially with 2015 being so slow and so many companies going under or changing industries. Many young climbers have left the industry, do you blame them? I don’t because I know that we all need to feed our families, don’t we? I worry about my job, but I still think we need to face reality.

So who will be the lead for climber safety? From what I see the leadership will need to be the business owners. The customers, like AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile will drive safety by forcing the crews to be certified by the NWSA. Get ready to go through the certification process if you want to do carrier work. I am trying to let you know now because it will be a requirement. It is going to be hard to fake and they will request all of your certifications. Tower companies and carriers will drive this certification along with NATE. The NWSA will be the certification overseer but it will be up to you to be certified. Will the training companies play a part, hell yes. You still need to learn about it and you still need the hands on. Your crews will need to add certifications, from the NWSA and from the training companies. Add that to the list of expenses you need to cover. It will be part of doing business. If you ever did wireless work in Louisiana or Texas on oil fields then you probably already took these certification courses in a testing center. I have, and you need to do it!

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By the way, if you don’t pay someone who does work in your house, they would turn it over to collections and you would take a hit on your credit. How are these companies immune? They are not, they play the odds that you will not take them to court, that simple. If you sue them or file complaints with the state’s department of labor, then they know you are serious and you can make a difference. The problem is that the wireless industry is made of very small companies that mostly do work themselves and they may not have time to go to court or they are afraid to take their customer to court for fear of losing future work.  That has to change today! 

If your company does NOT have the balls to take them to court, then report them to NATE with a complete explanation of the problem.  Maybe NATE can help.

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official logoI am asking you to help the Hubble Foundation because if you don’t help these families, who will? What if it were you? Would you want help? Who would help you if you were hurt? Who would help your family, your spouse, your children if something happened to you? Do you see the people who are hurt? Click here to learn about the wonderful work they are doing. Please support hurt climbers and their families by donating to the Hubble Foundation. Show you care for people in wireless. Not everyone has a safe job in deployments. The Hubble Foundation helps support the people who get hurt building the wireless systems that the world relies on.




  1. […] Money is an issue in the tower climber business. Most companies are small because they have trouble keeping work, money is a very important issue in this business and when people don’t get paid it ripples down to safety. The turf model of hiring contractors needs to be better regulated, in my opinion. I did a post on what the tower climbers are really worried about. This particular post was very popular and I got a lot of feedback from dozens of anonymous climbers who agreed with it but would not let me share their names. Everyone will talk but not if they have to go public. […]


  2. […] Money is an issue in the tower climber business. Most companies are small because they have trouble keeping work, money is a very important issue in this business and when people don’t get paid it ripples down to safety. The turf model of hiring contractors needs to be better regulated, in my opinion. Everyone will talk but not if they have to go public. […]


  3. The reason why there is such a huge drug and alcohol problem is due to the pay. The industry only pays enough to attract people with these problems, because it’s their only chance to make money.

    Liked by 1 person

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