Dying for a Burger?

Country/area: United Kingdom

Organisation: BBC Birmingham, Coventry University

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 24 Feb 2020

Credit: Jonathan Gibson – Reporter/Producer BBC Birmingham, Assistant Professor Dr Anitha Chinnaswamy – Coventry University

Project description:

Exhaust fumes are a massive contributor to air pollution. It’s therefore hard to believe that despite the huge number of drive through restaurants across the UK, the level of exhaust pollutants next to the serving hatches and the potential impact on the health and well-being of restaurant employees serving from them has never been fully measured and assessed…until now!

This investigation set out to show how drive thru workers are being exposed to peaks in major air pollutants well in excess of legal limits using data gathered, scrutinised and presented as part of an 18 month long project.

Impact reached:

This report was developed by the BBC in conjunction with Coventry University to gather data in an area as yet unexplored – the impact of pollution on drive thru workers,

The findings, presented both in the form of an academic study and as a broadcast report, were transmitted by the BBC across England using datasets gathered at 10 locations to provide a region by region snaphot of issues related to drive thru outlets in those localities reaching a linear audience of around 3 million people across a broad demographic on BBC1.

More significantly it led to MPs tabling an early day motion in parliament calling for better understanding of the potential threat of pollution to drive thru workers on the basis of the data gathered, calls by trade unions for better worker protection across the drive thru sector and a commitment from at least one of the operators featured to reassess its working practices in light of the findings.

The subject matter was also picked up by other media outlets both within and outside the BBC and has gone on to promote further discussion both within academic circles and across the commercial world. 

Techniques/technologies used:

This was a labour intensive project requiring the use of commercial air monitoring equipment mounted on two vehicles which were parked adjacent to the serving hatches of drive thru restaurants and left in situ for two week periods at a time.

The data was gathered using AQMesh commercial monitors which use a small sensor to measure outdoor air quality, offering real-time localised air quality information and data analysis via a cloud based server.

In order to facilitate data gathering without a power feed for two weeks in each location, these had to be custom designed with an internal rechargable battery to provide sufficient power to take an air sample every 15 minutes 24 hours a day across a two week period. 

As the information was fed back to a remote server, the data could be looked at in almost real time allowing patterns to be identified early on.

What was the hardest part of this project?

This was a logistically difficult and time consuming exercise taking 18 months to complete and without the co-operation of any of the big drive thru operators we approached.

On that basis it had to be completed under their radar without raising suspicions while still gaining access to their premises.

To facilitate this, we custom rigged two vans with the air monitors described in the previous section. The intention was to place each van next to a drive thru window at one of ten drive thru locations across the country for two weeks at a time. This was particularly challenging because each location had to fulfil particular criteria, both from a data gathering and practical perspective.

The locations needed to have parking spaces which backed directly onto the drive through windows so that the air monitoring equipment was at exactly the same height and distance from the customers exhaust fumes as the worker at the serving hatch. This instantly ruled out a large number of locations and we had some difficulty finding suitable sites across the country.

From a practical perspective, we also had to find locations where the car park was not controlled by a private parking company which would either ticket or tow away our vans when left for long periods given that we were operating without the express permission of the drive thru company in question. This is turn ruled out a large number of additional sites. Nevertheless perseverence paid off and we managed to find locations with similar layouts which enabled us to gather data at multiple sites which could be compared..

What can others learn from this project?

This was a project that took a huge amount of commitment, determination and resolve to deliver, using limited resources to expose an apparent problem at some of the largest drive thru restaurant chains in the world.  

What it shows is that anything is possible with the right attitude and by building effective collaborative relationships.

As we knew our data gathering methods and conclusions would likely be challenged by the big drive thru operators – which is precisely what happened – it was important that we worked with an academic partner to ensure that our findings would stand up to peer review.

Coventry University not only agreed to work with us but helped to fund the air monitoring equipment we’d need to use over an extended period of time.

This is just the latest in a long line of collaborations between BBC Birmingham and Coventry University showcasing the value of such partnerships in the field of data journalism. 



Project links: