Risks & Rewards: Awareness key to climber safety

Published on Wednesday, 28 May 2014 22:54 - Written by ADAM RUSSELL arussell@tylerpaper.com

Before every ascent, tower technician Matt Sorem lights a cigarette, takes a drag and asks himself, “Why am I doing this?”

It’s simple for Sorem, 27, a former Marine from Canton — his job provides instant cool points with strangers and some of the best 360-degree views on Earth.

Everyone knows what a tower technician is when he explains, “I climb big towers.” But few people know the intricacies and step-by-step dangers of the job.

Sorem is a self-described “adrenaline junkie.” Predisposition to thrills like jumping from helicopters and cliffs is common in technicians, he said, but so is calm.

“You have to have an extremely level head but you also have to be a little crazy,” he said.

Sorem tightens bolts, checks guy-wires, hoists hundreds of pounds of equipment via rope and pulley hundreds of feet in the air, repairs instruments and changes lights.

Every climb presents potential dangers.

Clothes can snag. Hands and feet can stick in steel crevices. Steps loosen and steps sometime break, sometimes during climbs. Even climbers’ lifelines — safety harnesses and ropes – can become trip-hazards and turn them into a meat-and-bone pendulum pin balling off steel or fail.

Situational awareness is the key to safety.

“Every step, I am looking and watching and feeling,” he said. “I’m only thinking about the tower.”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which tracks worksite injuries and deaths, reported 13 technicians died from work-related accidents in 2013, making their job one of the most dangerous.

A 2012 Frontline investigation revealed climbers died at 10 times the rate of other construction workers in the past decade during the high-risk, high-pressure race to build and maintain the nation’s communication infrastructure for carriers, such as AT&T and Sprint.

But climbs are as safe or dangerous as a climber makes them, Sorem insists.

Storms, high winds and lightning add risk when on deadline or in the middle of a job.

But risk is part of the job’s reward because Sorem thrives on challenges.

Hoisting a 500-pound receiver dish 200 feet in the air by rope and pulley in 60 mph winds and attaching it while standing on an inch-wide step is a mind and body workout, he said.

Sometimes Sorem thinks about different career paths, but he’s climbing the company ladder and wants to climb taller towers.

Sorem’s highest climb so far is 650 feet, 20 feet taller than St. Louis’ Gateway Arch. But his company is contracted to service 2,000-foot towers, and he’s eager to climb them.

Every summit is cause for pause. Sorem catches his breath and peeks.

“Everything is dangerous, so you have to take a few minutes to relax and enjoy the view,” Sorem said.