July 17, 2014 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 0Comment

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.”

His answer: the Recovery.gov website, which launched on February 17, 2009.

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.




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