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The Globe and Mail

Tower deaths: the human cost of cellphone service

In recent years, television has fetishized allegedly dangerous or unusual jobs. Ice pilots, ice truckers, men fishing for king crab in the Bering sea, swamp loggers and, coming soon, Diamond Divers, about guys who "risk life and limb to uncover precious diamonds that are just waiting to be plucked from the South African seas."

These shows, teeming with eccentrics and rugged individuals – always male – satisfy the fantasy lives of bourgeois, urban viewers whose most dangerous work task might be downloading a tricky PDF file at the office. There's no doubt that the guys on Deadliest Catch are actually doing very dangerous work. But there is a formulaic quality to the drama on shows that claim to present reality yet are obviously manipulative and heavily edited to excite someone sitting on a couch in a downtown condo.

In truth, one of the areas in which commercial television fails is the presentation of the blunt reality of working life, especially working-class life on the job. The heightened, highly manipulated presentation of unusual jobs is no substitute for the authentic documentation of ordinary people risking their lives while earning a living.

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That makes Frontline: Cell Tower Deaths (PBS, 10 p.m.) a highly unusual and worthwhile program. The episode investigates the horrifying rise in the number of deaths associated with the cellphone industry in the United States. While it diligently documents several incidents of men falling to their deaths from cellphone towers, it also serves as a useful reminder that behind the speed and ease of the digital age there are people actually losing their lives to make it all work.

In the U.S., since 2003, nearly 100 workers have been killed on towers that allow cellphone service to function. According to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, the death ratio for cellphone tower workers is 184 out of 100,000. That puts the job at the top of the "Fatal Job" list. In 2006 alone, 18 people were killed on the job.

The reasons, laid bare in the program, are the rapid expansion of cellphone use and the ability of cell companies such as AT&T to hire sub-sub-contractors to do dangerous work for which they never have to take full responsibility.

It's pointed out that when the iPhone was launched by Apple in 2007, AT&T was lacking in full coverage in the U.S. and was working frantically to build towers to ensure there would be no "dead zones" for the iPhone. Companies that specialized in building and maintaining towers – mainly for TV and radio service – were overwhelmed by the demands. A long-standing company that might build four towers in a year was now being asked to build 40 and do constant maintenance and upgrades.

The result has been the growth of sub-contracting to tiny companies that have neither the experience nor the knowledge of safety regulations to ensure that the work is done without accidents. Frontline presents case after case of deaths that occurred because safety equipment was minimal, untrained workers toiled unsupervised and the main interest of a sub-contractor was wringing a tiny profit margin from the job. Worse, the regulatory bodies tasked with regulating safety were overwhelmed by the sudden growth in the industry.

There are horrifying cases outlined in the program. And, in the end, viewers are served a strong reminder that most of us have willful blindness to the wider implications of the digital age we live in.

Just as most consumers want to be blissfully unaware of the working conditions in factories where our gadgets are made, many of us live in ignorance of how technology actually gets to serve us. That is, people do dangerous jobs so that we can chat, e-mail and watch cute videos on our smartphones.

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This Frontline has none of the contrived drama of truckers on ice roads or loggers negotiating dangerous swamps. It's far more sobering, and the better for it.

All times ET. Check local listings.

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