CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The company whose cellphone towers collapsed in Harrison County earlier this month, killing three men, also owned a tower in Mississippi where two people were killed earlier this year.
On Feb. 1, two Oklahoma men and a Nutter Fort volunteer firefighter were killed when two cell towers owned by SBA Communications Corp., a Florida-based company, collapsed in Clarksburg. Two other workers and another firefighter were injured.
In May, two wireless climbers in Mississippi fell to their deaths while working on a 300-foot cell tower owned by SBA.
SBA did not respond to multiple phone and email requests for comment last week. The company did, however, release a statement saying its officials are "deeply saddened" by the fatalities in Clarksburg and are fully cooperating with a government investigation.
Since September, there have been 14 injuries or fatalities on communications towers across the country, more than the past two years combined, according to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The cause of the Clarksburg tower collapse is not yet known and OSHA's investigation is expected to take at least six months.
These incidents seem likely to continue as cell companies push contractors and their employees to meet rising demand for 4G and 4GLTE data networks, said Randy Gray, a former OSHA inspector from Kentucky.
Gray said cellphone companies are racing to replace older 3G networks with 4G, or fourth-generation, networks. This rapid expansion places cell tower climbers at risk, Gray said, who now does private consulting on accidents and fatalities at cell tower sites.
Wireless field workers often face strict deadlines, as well as shrinking budgets to cover adequate safety equipment and training, he said.
"Let's say AT&T or Verizon takes out a contract and they put a deadline for completion, then the pressure is on at that point," Gray said. "Because if they don't meet that contract, then they start getting penalties for not completing it on time.
"That's when things exist like taking shortcuts -- 'So what if we don't put those safety harnesses on today because those harnesses are going to slow us down.'"
To make matters worse, Gray said, it's difficult for OSHA to hold companies such as SBA responsible, because there's a web of contractors and sub-contractors who often shield them from scrutiny.
OSHA investigators must prove several elements before citing a company, Gray said, one of them being knowledge of potential hazards.
"With the owner of the cell tower not being present at the time of the fatality, it's hard to prove they had knowledge about what the employees were signing off on," he said. "So these companies start layering themselves between the people who work on the ground, and this layering, in my opinion, protects them from possibly being cited by OSHA or being involved in OSHA inspections."
Companies such as SBA erect hundreds of cell towers across the country and then lease out antenna space to major cellphone carriers. SBA, like many cell tower owners, relies on contractors to build and maintain those sites.