Studies: Students initially complained about healthier school food, but now it’s like totally not a big deal
Nearly two years ago, American schoolchildren began sitting down to healthier school lunches, thanks to new federal nutrition guidelines. Media reports of the nutrition upgrade weren’t terribly encouraging, with stories of unhappy kids, unhappy parents and politicians who think addressing childhood obesity is an example of the “nanny state.” However, recent research has found what most parents probably already know: Kids are pretty adaptable — they just need some time.
First, a little background. With the 2010 passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act came the first major update to school nutrition in 15 years. The revised nutrition standards encourage schools to offer more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, to serve only fat-free and low-fat milk, get rid of trans fats, and limit calories and sodium. Schools that adopt the nutrition standards are eligible for increased federal reimbursement for school lunch and breakfast. As of this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that more than 90 percent of schools are meeting the new nutrition standards. And fortunately, researchers have found that while kids initially complained about the changes, they got used to the healthier meals pretty quickly.
In a study published in the August issue of Childhood Obesity and in an accompanying research brief published by Bridging the Gap, researchers found that most elementary, middle school and high school students liked the new meals. Both research efforts, which are the first national studies to examine student reaction to the updated nutrition standards, are based on surveys with school staff on their perceptions of student reactions to the new meals. Both efforts found that while students initially complained about the changes at the beginning of the school year, far fewer were complaining by spring.
In the Childhood Obesity study, authors Lindsey Turner and Frank Chaloupka surveyed school administrators and food service staff at about 550 public elementary schools in the second half of the 2012–2013 school year. More than half of respondents said students complained about the meals at first, however 70 percent reported that students seemed to like the new lunches. The study also found that only 4.3 percent of respondents thought “a lot fewer” students were buying lunch, whereas 6.2 percent though “a lot more” were buying lunch. The authors wrote:
Many aspects of school lunch quality have been improving over time, with many improvements underway even before the 2012–2013 school year. Although some media reports have described student complaints about the meals, in actuality, very few respondents perceived strong resistance to the changes. Although 13.7% of respondents ‘‘strongly agreed’’ that at first students complained about the meals, 63.2% also agreed or strongly agreed that most students are no longer concerned about the meals.
However, researchers did uncover some disparities. The study found that respondents from rural schools were more likely to report that more students were complaining, fewer students were buying school lunch and students were eating less of their lunches. The authors noted that “this is particularly important, given the higher rates of childhood obesity in rural areas as well as an overall reduced life expectancy among rural populations and a widening rural-urban life expectancy gap.”
Also, respondents serving socioeconomically disadvantaged students believed that more students were buying lunch and eating more of the meal — a finding that the study described as “encouraging news.” Interestingly, the study also found that perceived complaints were higher at schools that didn’t serve “regular” pizza (many schools have switched to a healthier version that includes whole wheat crust or lower-fat cheese). Overall, the study concludes that despite the media’s magnification of student complaints, student eating behavior has changed very little.
In the accompanying research brief, the field was expanded to include middle schools and high schools. In those schools, survey respondents said student complaints about the new meals dropped dramatically from fall to spring. By spring of the 2012–2013 school year, a majority of middle and high school students seemed to like the healthier meals. Some schools did report increases in plate waste (food that’s left uneaten), though less plate waste was reported at middle schools with a higher percentage of students who are eligible for free or reduced price lunch. Like the elementary school study, administrators at rural schools reported more student complaints than administrators at urban and suburban schools. Overall, the research brief found “generally positive” reactions to healthier school lunches.
In 2012, the National School Lunch Program provided healthy meals to 31 million children every school day. The program is often tapped as an ideal way to encourage and promote healthy eating habits and make inroads against childhood obesity, which has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past three decades.
Click here for a copy of the Childhood Obesity study and here for the accompanying research brief. To learn more about the new school meal nutrition standards and how to support them, visit the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.
The Obama Administration insists it is more transparent than its predecessors. The President’s people repeat the claim and are quick to dismiss assertions to the contrary. Reporters—whose business is shining a light on government—see things differently. Their complaints about the Obama Administration’s secrecy is not new, but they were elevated earlier this month in a letter sent to the White House. A group of 38 journalism and open government organizations accused the Obama Administration of
“politically driven suppression of news and information about federal agencies.”
They asserted that the Administration’s restrictions of information were a
“form of censorship — an attempt to control what the public is allowed to see and hear.”
As far as I can tell, the Administration’s response to the letter: a shrug.
The journalists’ letter was fresh on my mind when I read this morning at the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) “EPA: No comment on fracking air pollution.” InsideClimate News’ Lisa Song describes the hoops and roadblocks she’s encountered trying to get information from the EPA.
CPI and InsideClimate News have been reporting since February on fracking in the Eagle Ford Shale and its impact on air quality for nearby residents. Among other things, Song and collaborators Jim Morris and David Hasemyer, have been trying to figure out why EPA hasn’t stepped in to force the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to do its job. For five months they’ve been seeking on-the-record interviews with EPA officials, but no interviews have been granted. Song explains
Our first attempt at an on-the-record interview was with Ron Curry, the administrator of EPA Region 6, which includes Texas. We discussed our request with David Gray, the region’s director of external and government affairs, by phone. Gray suggested we start with an initial interview on background, which meant we couldn’t quote or identify any EPA officials on the call. He then handed off our request to Cathy Milbourn, a press officer at EPA headquarters.
Milbourn set up an interview, but the only EPA participants were herself and a senior public affairs advisor in the EPA’s Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards in North Carolina. …Neither had the expertise to give us what we really needed: answers to our complex questions about enforcement and regulations.
In early April we asked for an on-the-record interview with the EPA official we believed could best address these questions: Janet McCabe, acting assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. At first, the EPA seemed to be considering our request. Spokeswoman Julia Valentine emailed back, saying she would respond “shortly.”
Song explains that four weeks passed.
After further prompting, we learned that our request had been sent to Milbourn, the spokeswoman we talked with in March. … To accommodate McCabe’s busy schedule, we listed July 15 as our deadline — six weeks from our first email to Milbourn, and three months after our initial interview request.
The emails continued until Milbourn wrote on July 12, “An interview on this issue isn’t possible.”
My reaction to Lisa Song’s tale is the same one I’ve had when hearing similar experiences from other reporters. My interest drifts from the substance of reporter’s request, to the “why” about the agency’s secrecy. Is there something scandalous the agency wants to hide? Maybe, but probably not. More likely something mundane, like having to admit that you don’t have a good answer to a questions, or not having the resources to do what’s being suggested, or not wanting to get into a political fight. Just plain old honesty that may make the agency look bad.
Not an “accident”: Jose Alfredo Isagirrez-Mejia, 29 suffers fatal work-related injury at construction site in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida
Jose Alfredo Isagirrez-Mejia, 29, suffered fatal traumatic injuries on Monday, July 21 while working at a construction site in Fort Lauderdale, FL. The incident occurred on a $15 million project managed by Miller Construction Company. It’s the future site of a BMW/MINI dealership and service complex.
Local10.com reports the following about the incident:
- a ceiling roof beam “came crashing down”
- three workers were lowering the beam in place with a crane. “Something went wrong and it struck all three workers.”
The Sun-Sentinel reports:
- a carpenter who was an eye-witness to the events said a crane was lowering a joist when a support gave way and knocked the men off a ladder and scaffolding
- the incident occurred shortly before 8 a.m.
- this is the sixth work-related fatal injury death in Broward County, Florida since June 1
The news accounts don’t indicate whether Jose Alfredo Isagirrez-Mejia, 29, was employed by Miller Construction Company or one of their subcontractors.
Describing the project, the firm’s website says:
- the $15 million three-story facility will include 59 service bays and 3 alignment bays
- the firm “is responsible for overseeing all aspects of the tilt-wall construction project from its earliest stages.”
OSHA will conduct a post-fatality inspection of the construction site. If the agency’s inspectors identify violations of health safety regulations, the company will be cited.
OSHA’s on-line inspection data suggest that Miller Construction Company was subject to one OSHA inspection in the last 10 years. At a project in Boca Raton, Florida, the firm received citations in April 2007 for two serious and one other-than-serious violations. The serious violations involved inadequate fall protection and hazards in their concrete-masonry construction activities which posed a risk to workers of being impaled on protruding steel. Miller Construction and OSHA settled the case and the company paid a $3,432 penalty.
Each year, more than 200 workers in Florida are fatally injured on-the-job. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 218 work-related fatalities in Florida during 2012 (most recent available data.) Nationwide, at least 4,628 workers suffer fatal traumatic injuries in 2012.
The AFL-CIO’s annual Death on the Job report notes:
- Federal OSHA has 60 inspectors in Florida to cover more than 490,000 workplaces.
- The average penalty for a serious violation in Florida is $1,821.
Federal OSHA has until mid-January to issue any citations and penalties related to the incident that stole Jose Alfredo Isagirrez-Mejia’s life. It’s likely they’ll determine that the safety program of Miller Construction Company and/or their subcontractors was inadequate, and that Isagirrez-Mejia’s death was preventable. It was no “accident.”
Global warming is affecting more than just atmospheric temperatures — it is also changing water cycles, soil conditions, and animal migrations. Earth observation satellites aid scientists in measuring and monitoring these changes so societies can better adapt. Although there are well over 1,000 active orbiting satellites, less than 15 percent are used to monitor Earth’s environment. Yale Environment 360 presents a gallery of satellites that scientists are using to better understand how the planet is changing.
View the gallery.
Researchers develop innovative way to detect fake malaria drugs that could save lives, deter counterfeiting
It looks like a simple piece of paper and it’s nearly as cheap, ideally costing just pennies. But despite its small size, it’s poised to make an enormous impact and potentially save thousands of lives.
It’s a new test to spot counterfeit versions of the drug artesunate, which is one of the most important drugs used to treat malaria, a mosquito-borne disease that affects hundreds of millions of people every year. Based on the science of microfluidics, researchers at Oregon State University developed an easy-to-use and inexpensive testing kit that patients and health care providers can use to determine if the malaria drug they receive is genuine and how much artesunate is present. Here’s how it works: a single pill is crushed and dissolved in water and then a drop is placed on the testing paper. Users then consult a simple color chart for the results — if the paper turns yellow, artesunate is present. The test takes just minutes and can be done just about anywhere. Findings on the innovative technique were recently published in the journal Talanta.
As the researchers noted in the journal article, drug counterfeiting is responsible for about 20 percent of the 1 million malaria deaths that happen each year. They also cited surveys finding that artesunate counterfeits make up between 38 percent and 53 percent of malaria drugs in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. The Fake Malaria Drugs Kill project of the Dutch Malaria Foundation estimates that one-third of all malaria drugs sold in Africa are fake. And if that weren’t awful enough, counterfeit drugs can also contribute to the emergence of multidrug-resistant malaria. That’s why this little test could be a really big deal.
“It’s the first time we’ve tried to tackle a public health problem,” Vincent Remcho, an author of the Talanta study and a professor of chemistry and the Patricia Valian Reser Faculty Scholar in the Oregon State University College of Science, said about himself and his colleagues. “(Microfluidics) is a technology that is near and dear to us…to see it be useful in a public health setting is really gratifying.”
So, where did the idea come from? Interestingly, “it all started with a cool radio story,” Remcho told me. His wife, a veterinarian, was driving home when she heard a radio story about counterfeit medicines and malaria in particular. When she got home, she told Remcho that it reminded her of the kind of problems he tackles in his lab, where he and his colleagues build microfluidic devices that perform chemical analyses. Remcho agreed.
In turn, he and his colleagues set out with the intention of creating a test that was cheap, easy to use and wasn’t dependent on a person’s literacy level. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had previously developed a colorimetric test for artesunate, but it involved adding and mixing together chemicals in test tubes and isn’t easy to use outside a laboratory. In contrast, the test Remcho helped develop can be easily conducted in resource-poor settings, in remote locations and in the field. Remcho and study co-authors Myra Koesdjojo, Yuanyuan Wu, Anukul Boonloed and Elizabeth Dunfield write:
The chemicals required to perform the assay cost approximately US $.02 per test, which makes it a very practical solution to detect counterfeits. Since the reagents for the colorimetric test are stored on paper in dry form, they are more stable and easier to transport, which provides advantages of easy handling and longer shelf life. Furthermore, while most counterfeiters are producing fake drugs that lack of artesunate, some drugs are made with significantly lower active ingredients, which are incapable of killing all the parasites. This is an effort by the counterfeiters to misleadingly pass the test when a qualitative (positive/negative) evaluation is made to determine the presence of artesunate in the drug. Our test kit allows for quantitative analysis of artesunate tablets by providing a key that comes along with the kit and allows for comparison of the developed yellow color with the intensity of the yellow color corresponding to the approximate concentration of artesunate.
In addition to the test, students working on the project also developed an iPhone app that can more precisely measure the presence and level of artesunate. The app works by using the phone’s camera to analyze the intensity of the yellow that shows up on the paper strip. Of course depending on the setting, Remcho said the iPhone app may be most useful to health care providers and not necessarily patients. Still, the paper test results can be easily read with the naked eye, he added.
But can the test be cheated? Certainly not easily, Remcho said. If the criminals who manufacture and sell counterfeit malaria drugs wanted to cheat the test badly enough, they might be able to figure out a way. But Remcho hopes the time, effort and cost of finding a way to fool the test will be a deterrent.
Now that the test has been developed and assessed, Remcho is working to get the testing kit out to the people who need it. Beginning this fall and with funding from Grand Challenges Canada, which supports global health projects, Remcho and his colleagues are partnering with the National Institute for Metrology in Thailand to explore the feasibility of widespread use and distribution of the testing kit as well as the ease with which actual malaria patients can use the test. Remcho said he feels very hopeful.
“We want this test to be reliable and trustworthy,” he said. “I’m really hopeful that it goes in that direction. For right now, it kind of remains to be seen how it will evolve…but we’re excited that this technology can do some good.”
According to the World Health Organization, there were an estimated 207 million cases of malaria in 2012 and 627,000 malaria deaths.
To read more about the new counterfeit test, read this press release from Oregon State University or visit the Talanta journal. To watch a video about the toll of counterfeit malaria drugs, visit www.fakedrugskill.org.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.
by Anthony Robbins, MD, MPA
I first heard the name Thomas Piketty on a trip to France. Now his immense book, Le capital au XXIe siècle (Capital in the Twenty-First Century) sits on my bedside table (in both the original French and the English translation). It is a best seller in the US and in France. I have read reviews (here, here), attacks, defenses, and other essays that take off from Piketty’s work. I even had the opportunity to hear him live, addressing a class at MIT.
Having learned Piketty’s major observations and arguments with the MIT students and followed the debate about his work, I sheepishly admit that I have barely cracked open the book. Perhaps I overestimated my capacity to read the book. Could a book so large and dense ever have been bedtime reading?
This has not stopped me from thinking, based on his methods and conclusions, Piketty might have something to offer us in public health. He describes how over the last two centuries, as income flowed to the richest people, the distribution of wealth in industrial societies has become increasingly concentrated in a very small minority–increasing wealth inequality. There was one brief period, from the 1940s to the 1980s, where wealth inequality declined, but Piketty suggests that this was an historical aberration, not the long-term trend. He predicts increasing wealth inequality in the 21st Century, a feature of capitalist economies, unless we do something about it.
Public health scholars have concluded that environmental factors–both the physical and social environments–affect health. They have imported the word determinant from mathematics to describe these causal situations. They have also chosen to use the adjective “social”, although I don’t think they means to exclude physical exposures like housing and workplaces. And since the Report on the WHO Commission on the Social Determinants of Health, researchers are more attentive to what influences the health of populations. This is a salutary trend, as it constitutes a countervailing force against the tendency to attribute health to medical care effectiveness and lack of health to medical care deficiencies–a very narrow view.
To study social determinants of health, most researchers have compared people exposed to different environments, often using income as a variable. Because it is easier, these studies usually look at different populations at one time in history. The studies are cross-sectional, not longitudinal (over time).
If we adopted Piketty’s research strategy and focused on changes in health and in social determinants over time, would we be able to learn more about the causes of health inequality? Surely more has changed over time than the medical care system. And just as Piketty urges policies that alter wealth directly, such as wealth taxes, to achieve a more equitable distribution of wealth, public health advocates would be advised to urge policies that attack the most unhealthy aspects of our societies’ environments.
Here I make a plea for public health leaders to avoid having public health get lost in the term health systems, where the public immediately thinks medical care. Surely we must attend to workplaces and employment, housing and the living environment, and toxic and physical exposures throughout society. These exposures are rarely spread evenly across the population. Following changes over time in both health and exposures may encourage policies that bring more health in the future. It may be a powerful antidote to the conventional thinking that usually attributes inequality in health to unequal access to medical care.
Anthony Robbins, MD, MPA is co-Editor of the Journal of Public Health Policy. He directed the Vermont Department of Health, the Colorado Department of Health, the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the U.S. National Vaccine Program.
Mapping the lives and deaths of workers: An emerging way to tell the story of occupational health and safety
When Bethany Boggess first debuted her online mapping project, she didn’t expect it to attract so much attention. But within just six months of its launch, people from all over the world are sending in reports and helping her build a dynamic picture of the lives and deaths of workers.
The project is called the Global Worker Watch and it’s quite literally a living map of worker fatalities and catastrophes from around the globe. When you go to the site, you’ll see a world map speckled with blue dots, each representing a reported occupational death, illness or disaster. Here are just a few I randomly clicked on: In March in Pakistan, four workers died and 18 were injured when a gas cylinder exploded at a gas company. Also in March in Gujarat, India, two workers died of silicosis, an occupational disease caused by the inhalation of silica dust. Three workers have died in the mines of Coahuila, Mexico, since January. In February, a worker at an Iron County mine site in Utah died after getting trapped on a conveyer belt. Just a few days ago, a worker in the United Kingdom died after falling from an electricity tower. And in May, police in Cambodia opened fire during a labor protest, killing four people.
“Obviously, I’m only capturing the tip of the iceberg,” said Boggess, a 26-year-old epidemiology student at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Austin. “But if I’m just one person and I can do this in six months…then with more and more people contributing, we can get a much more complete and accurate picture (of worker deaths and injuries).”
The idea for Global Worker Watch grew out of Boggess’ experience investigating the global supply chain in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh in 2013 that killed more than 1,000 people and injured thousands more. The building housed a number of garment factories and nearly all those who died in the collapse were garment workers. In the wake of the disaster, Boggess began working with data analysts in the United Kingdom to figure out which U.S. and U.K. companies sourced their products from factories in Bangladesh. In particular, Boggess analyzed several million import and export records from Wal-Mart and it piqued her interest in working with unusual data sets and in presenting data in visually appealing mediums. Shortly after the Bangladesh project, she partnered with an Austin-based worker center, Workers Defense Project, to map incidents of wage theft and worker injury using weekly reports from OSHA. Both experiences as well as the skills she’s gained as an amateur computer programmer and hacker eventually led her to build Global Worker Watch and its interactive maps.
Here’s how it works. Boggess finds data for the maps from three main sources: news sources using Google Alerts, government data (“Kind of a pain and not always useful,” she tells me), and people from all around the world who submit stories and data directly to Boggess through the website. Boggess is fluent in Spanish and Italian and can read and understand French, so she’s able to map stories and data arriving in those languages. For right now, language is definitely a hurdle in creating more complete and accurate maps, she said. But she hopes that as more people hear about the project and want to participate, it’ll become less of a barrier.
When a worker incident comes in, Boggess typically gets it on the map within a week, through sometimes it’s within hours. Sometimes, the story behind the dot on the map is somewhat vague — with little known about the workers involved or even the name of the workplace — while others are much more detailed, listing the worker’s name, age, gender, cause of death and the name of the company where he or she worked. Boggess told me that about 10 percent to 15 percent of the mapped data come directly from people contacting her with reports of worker deaths. The Global Worker Watch site also offers visitors its data in the raw as well as a gallery of recent and historical photos of workers from around the world.
“I wanted to put a face to this,” she said of the photo gallery. “The maps are nice but there’s no human face to them.”
Boggess said she doesn’t know of other projects attempting to map worker deaths worldwide. However, the idea of using mapping to more easily illustrate a public health problem isn’t entirely new. For instance, HealthMap mines the Internet to map disease outbreaks and emerging public health threats and Google Flu Trends does the same with flu activity. (We’ve written about HealthMap here.) In the worker safety arena, CPWR – The Center for Construction Research and Training launched its Fatality Map in 2011 and may have been the first to use the mapping technique in an occupational health and safety application.
Fatality Map, which is part of the center’s falls prevention campaign, maps overall construction fatalities and fatal construction falls in the United States. Data for the maps are collected from ongoing OSHA investigations and supplemented with media reports, said Gavin West, a research analyst at the center, which grew out of a series of cooperative agreements with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and is dedicated to generating research and training resources to promote safe working conditions for construction workers. Each pinpoint on the Fatality Map tells the story of a construction fatality. For example, in April 2013, two workers in Hendersonville, Tennessee, died after being pinned underneath a section of a concrete block wall that collapsed during construction of a new building. Fatality Map data are collected in real time, and the online maps are updated quarterly.
West told me that in 2011, the mapping project was able to capture 78 percent of official construction-related fatalities and 69 percent of fatal fall numbers when compared to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2012, the maps captured 74 percent of overall fatalities and 68 percent of falls. West said that while Fatality Map isn’t the best tool for making state-based comparisons, it can show — “very plainly” — where more construction workers are dying and falling on the job.
“(The maps) help bring life to the data instead of just looking at the numbers,” West told me. “The visual aspect and the ability to interact help draw some attention to the problem.”
Fatality Map also lets visitors access its raw data so that people can create even more specific profiles of construction-related deaths. For example, Chris Trahan, the center’s deputy director, told me that the open data was recently used to research fall-related fatalities among industrial painters in California. Trahan said in addition to raising awareness about construction worker deaths, Fatality Map is also a useful training tool. She said she’s heard from safety trainers who use the maps to drive home lessons and reinforce safety messages — “it’s become another tool in their toolbox.”
“We hope we can put a face to the numbers,” Trahan said.
Back in Austin, Boggess said most of the responses to Global Worker Watch have been positive. She said she’s received a particularly excited response from corporate transparency activists, such as United Students Against Sweatshops. The experience is also providing some fascinating insights and anecdotes.
For instance, she said that “Spain is incredible, they report everything — every time a worker gets a scrape, it’s reported.” Interestingly, she said she often learns about a U.S.-based incident involving an immigrant worker in news reports from the worker’s native country before reading about it in an American media outlet. Boggess noted that the lack of data also tells a compelling story. One quick glimpse at Global Worker Watch and you’ll notice hardly any blue pinpoints in the entire African continent. Partially that’s because of the language barriers that Boggess hopes to overcome as more people take part; but it’s also because of insufficient workplace oversight.
Boggess has received some criticism about the accuracy of Global Worker Watch. But she believes that the more open her site is the more likely people will help verify stories of worker conditions. And once you start clicking on the little blue dots and reading about workers dying from suffocation, workplace violence, chemical exposure, drowning, building collapse — you just can’t stop, which seems to be exactly the point.
“I hope the map will help consumers and the public realize just how important it is for workers to be treated with some basic human rights,” Boggess said. “I hope I can visually show how big the issue is and how it shouldn’t be ignored.”
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.
Flashback to February 2009. The economy was in the tank. President Obama was marking his second month in office. Congress passed and the President signed H.R. 1, the “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009,” which authorized $800 billion in government spending to stimulate the economy. $800 Billion is not chump change, and who would get the money was on people’s minds. The President understood
“It’s your money. You deserve to know where it’s going and how it’s spent.”
I never had a reason to visit the site until this week. The nudge came from an OSHA news release out of Coolville, Ohio. The agency announced citations for a willful and eight serious violations issued against Morlan Enterprises a firm doing cell tower work in Meigs County, Ohio. An OSHA inspector observed two workers climbing up a 195-foot communication tower without adequate fall protection. The news release notes:
“Morlan Enterprises was contracted by New Era Broadband Services of Coolville to perform tower construction and antenna installation services at 20 locations in the Meigs County area. The New Era Broadband construction project is being funded by a grant, administered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture — Rural Utilities Service, to bring broadband services to underserved communities in the area.”
I didn’t know what kind of grant the firm might have received so I first poked around on the USDA’s website. I got frustrated after a while and picked up the phone. I called the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) to ask if the names of grant recipients are posted on the agency’s website. After getting bounced around a few times, I learned, they aren’t. The stimulus money website is unique, at least as far as RUS grants and loans are concerned.
Well maybe the grant referred to by OSHA was part of that $800 billion in stimulus money? Afterall, the bill authorized $7.2 billion in spending to expand broadband and wireless Internet access. My reason to visit Recovery.gov had arrived. Here’s what Recovery.gov tells me about New Era Broadband and Morlan Enterprises:
- In September 2010, New Era Broadband was awarded a grant for $2.2 million and a loan of $739,000 under the stimulus program.
- The firm has been paid to-date $1.87 million on the grant and $623,000 for the loan.
- The project is more than 50% complete.
- Morlan Enterprises appears on the Recovery.gov website as a vendor providing consulting services to New Era Broadband. The website shows payments to Morlan Enterprises totaling $3,938.
A few thousand dollars is small potatoes in the stimulus-money scheme of things, but not necessarily meaningless when picking apart of worker safety problem. And there’s a big worker safety problem in the cell tower industry. A 2012 analysis by ProPublica calculated a death rate for cell tower workers that was more than 10 times that for construction workers. And holding companies responsible for the deaths and injuries has floundered. As ProPublica noted
“cell phone carriers and tower owners have insulated themselves from legal and regulatory liability for on-the-job injuries by delegating this work to layers of subcontractors.”
OSHA’s been trying to get a handle on the problem.
The agency told its inspectors last year that if they became aware of cell tower work in their area, they should go and inspect the site. Inspectors were also instructed to obtain any relevant contracting agreements that show business relationships between the tower owner, wireless carrier, repair service companies, etc. That’s an important step needed to identify who is influencing how the job is being done, and more importantly, how decisions will affect safety. But with deaths of cell tower workers continuing, OSHA put the industry on notice in February: It would consider classifying violations of its fall protection standard as “willful.” OSHA’s Columbus, OH area office is keeping the agency at its word: (1) a willful violation issued to Morlan Enterprises, and (2) documentation of who hired the firm for the work. In this case, at the top of the contracting food chain is the USDA.
What I don’t know (but OSHA probably does) is whether this particular project—-the subject of the OSHA inspection—-was funded with the stimulus money, or another USDA grant. The RUS has been funding telecommunication improvements for years. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced recently the availability of $13 million to fund broadband projects in unserved areas. The announcement notes:
“Since it was created in 2003, USDA has approved more than $142 million in more than 240 Community Connect projects to bring broadband service to rural communities that lacked it.”
Seems that USDA is part of the tangled web of players in the cell industry. I had no clue.
Companies that apply for these USDA grants are asked to provide evidence that they comply with certain federal statutes. The USDA’s most recent announcement for telecommunication grants mentions laws on lobbying, a drug-free workplace, and flood hazard precautions. Maybe it’s time to specifically mention compliance with OSHA regulations, including those on fall protection and a 100 percent tie-off rule.