The rapid growth of communications technology has put pressure on tower climbers to do more with less training.
"The rate of development of skilled labor to do the task is way behind the growth of demand," said Winton Wilcox, president of ComTrain LLC, a Wisconsin-based company that monitors tower safety and trains climbers. "There isn't 10 to 12 years to learn the business anymore. You're lucky to find two men on a crew that have more than five years experience."
Corey Schirmer, of Topeka, was hired to climb towers nine years ago. He didn't need a license or experience. He recently quit because of the job's demands.
"I felt overworked sometimes," he said. "Where you didn't feel it was safe to work, but you've got to get the job done, so you get up there and you do it."
Last week, two men lost their lives in Douglas County after they fell to the ground as they made their way up a 1,000-foot tower. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the deaths of Jerry Case, 54, of Kansas City, Mo., and Kevin Keeling, 33, of Independence, Mo. They died July 10 while working on a tower southeast of Lawrence. Authorities said the two men were between 500 and 800 feet off the ground when the bucket they were in fell. Officials think a cable the bucket was traveling up snapped.
Case and Keeling were the sixth and seventh tower fatalities this year in the United States.
Working with the National Association of Tower Erectors, OSHA has compiled an inspection checklist for the approximately 9,000 U.S. tower climbers.
"A lot of the reasons people die is they weren't tied off," said Craig Lekutis, president of WirelessEstimator.com, which provides news and safety information to tower climbers. "If you're not properly tied off and you don't have the correct personal protection equipment, you're going to slip at some point. Gravity can be unforgiving."
In 1999, a 26-year-old man died after falling 220 feet from a tower near Wichita. OSHA found the worker wasn't wearing his rope grab - a safety requirement.
"There is no training standard, no licensing to measure these people's level of experience," said Wilcox, who hopes awareness will bring better safety regulations.
New tower climbers make $12 per hour, Wilcox said, while a 15-year veteran makes about $30 per hour. "They make less than most plumbers, carpenters and electricians," he said, "yet they have to embody a much wider skill range and they work in an environment that's intense and unique."
The job also can be extremely dangerous if workers don't take time to heed OSHA's safety guidelines.
"The standards are out there; people just take shortcuts or just don't know about those standards," Lekutis said.