Each time he dangles from a cellphone tower 100-300 feet in the air, Joe Poulin is acutely aware that one mistake could send him plummeting to his death.
But like many of the 10,000 other climbers in the U.S. whose job it is to scale cell towers to install antennas and inspect equipment, the 34-year-old construction manager at Alpharetta, Georgia-based Telecommunications Technical Services has become desensitized to the potential near-death experiences that come with the job.
Poulin has been scaling these Statue of Liberty-sized steel giants since 2007 — one year before the director of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration called it the "most dangerous job in America." That promise of danger has long drawn rock climbers to the profession, and, as it did with Poulin, the similarities have lured tower technicians to the sport.
Though his current managerial position keeps him mostly on the ground, Poulin knows the risks these fearless climbers take to make each phone call you make possible.
What kind of people does the job attract? It takes a special type of person to get on a cell tower. You find out pretty quick if it's something you can do. Not only do you have to get over the fear of climbing the tower, you also have to have some kind of physical ability. Eventually, you get comfortable enough to stop holding onto the steel so tight that you're bending it. [laughs]
How long does it take to get comfortable? You never really get 'comfortable.' Your awareness grows. And you develop the idea that you're probably safer on a cell tower than you are behind the wheel of a car. That's my interpretation of comfort. I guess if you ever got too comfortable on a tower, you probably don't belong up there. A lot of the times, when something bad happens on the tower, it's usually that person's fault for not being safe or not doing what they're supposed to.
What are some of the dangers? Other people. If you're putting things on the tower and someone isn't paying attention, they could crush your hand. Or if you're on the ground, tools or equiment could fall on your head. You could fall. You could get struck by lightening. There's a long list of stuff that could go wrong.
Have you seen any of those things go wrong? Oh, yeah, I've seen some stuff, man. I've seen a guy fall backwards into his harness and be caught just by his foot. But I've never actually seen anyone fall, thank God.
Aside from height, how can cell tower climbing be more dangerous than rock climbing? When you're climbing rock, you usually know your structure's secure; you're not going to grab loose rocks. But with cell towers, the structure itself could be damaged or rusted. Plus, there's a lot of birds that like to camp out and crap on these towers, so it could be real slippery. There's a lot of stuff to pay attention to. Though for the most part, cell towers are designed for you to climb them. So their holds are very evident and user-friendly.
How is the gear different from a rock climber's gear? [Rock] climbers usually use just a waist harness. We use a full-body harness. It goes over our shoulders, wraps under the legs, wraps on like a belt. Then we attach bags to it to hold tools, so we're climbing with much more weight. And rock climbers go out maybe once, twice a week. We're beating the crap out of our equipment every day.
What's the hardest part of the job? It's not all localized. You don't just get to walk out of your house, go to work and climb the nearest cell tower; you have to be away from your family and friends, sometimes for a long time. That's pretty heavy for some people — not to mention having to do a job that's dangerous on its own.
What makes it all worth it? Have you ever jumped out of a plane? It's kind of like that. It's peaceful up there when you're by yourself with a nice, fresh breeze. It's definitely got some therapeutic qualities. But personally, I've just always been a thrill-seeker. I guess that's why I shake off those near falls or 'shoot, I could have just died right there' incidents and just keep rolling.