An investigative report by ProPublica and PBS “Frontline” points out that many large companies have a simple way to avoid OSHA regulations, enforcement and penalties: Hire subcontractors to do dangerous work.
There have been 23 cell tower worker fatalities in the U.S. since 2003. How many of the victims worked for one of the big four cellular companies (AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile)?
They all worked for subcontractors.
So despite the fact that the work being done when the fatalities occurred was for the benefit of those four companies, none of them have paid one penny to OSHA for the deaths.
Instead, OSHA has had to fine the smaller companies that employed the tower climbers.
OSHA would have to meet the requirements of the multi-employer citation policy: It would have to show that the larger companies exerted control over the workers at the tower locations.
And that’s difficult to do. OSHA tried once, as documented in the ProPublica report, but ultimately dismissed the fine against the cellular phone company.
This isn’t limited to cell tower climbers. Contractors were injured or killed in eight of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health’s 10 worst workplace accidents of 2010. In six of the ten incidents, only contractors died — no full-time workers.
ProPublica calls this a “trend of companies out-sourcing their dirtiest, most perilous work within the U.S.” Industries in which this is common include oil and gas, trucking, nuclear waste removal, and home building.
The number of workers employed by contractors jumped nearly 25% from 1995 to 2005. There are an estimated 40 million contingent workers, including contractors, temps, self-employed, part-time and day laborers, in the U.S. today.
What was the common root cause of the cell tower worker deaths? Tight timetables and financial pressure often led workers to take shortcuts.
What would have to change for OSHA to be able to fine the companies who hired the subcontractors to do the dangerous work? Some experts say it would take an act of Congress. Others say it’s something OSHA could do administratively, but companies would tie up such cases in the courts.
One interesting suggestion comes from former OSHA administrator John Henshaw: Simply make it known which fatalities are connected to which cell carriers. Then the American public can take its business to the cellular carriers with the best safety records.
OSHA hasn’t traced the 23 cell tower fatalities back to the big four carriers. But as part of its investigation, ProPublica did. For the record: 15 were AT&T, 5 T-Mobile, 2 Verizon and 1 Sprint.
OSHA deputy administrator Jordan Barab told ProPublica if 15 employees of one company had died, that would be exactly the kind of case the agency would consider for its Severe Violator Enforcement Program for businesses that show an indifference to safety. Companies in the program are subject to mandatory follow-up inspections.
Barab says OSHA could trace the fatalities back to the cellular companies, just as ProPublica did.
The reaction from the cellular companies to all this? AT&T says it requires the contractors it hires for cell tower work to adhere to OSHA regulations. Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint said their subcontractors’ safety was a priority.
Is it sufficient for OSHA to cite and fine the small subcontracting companies when serious injuries or fatalities are involved? Or should OSHA also find a way to fine the companies that hired the subcontractors? If that isn’t possible, would shaming them — tracing the deaths back to the cellular company — be effective? Let us know what you think in the comments below.