Investigations

Kentucky’s occupational safety and health program has “a number of unacceptable issues” that are under internal review, according to Acting Labor Secretary David Dickerson.

Dickerson wrote in an op-ed published Tuesday in the Lexington Herald-Leader that the “hard work of turning the program around is well underway” after the agency received a critical federal audit last year.

The federal report was first publicized in November as part of Fatal Flaws, a special investigation by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, the Ohio Valley ReSource and the Center for Public Integrity.

(Read Fatal Flaws: How Kentucky Is Failing Its Workers)

The joint investigation found that Kentucky’s Occupational Safety and Health agency failed to properly investigate nearly every worker fatality in a two-year period. In many cases, inspectors didn’t interview eyewitnesses and didn’t address serious safety hazards.

The Labor Cabinet denied or ignored numerous requests for interviews from KyCIR, both before and after the story published. Tuesday’s op-ed was the first public response from the Labor Cabinet to the investigation.

Cabinet leadership is reviewing the KY OSH program and implementing changes, according to the op-ed. Dickerson said the new commissioner of the Department of Workplace Standards, Dwayne Depp, has increased training requirements for investigators and instituted mandatory deadlines to speed up investigations.

Handout photo

Acting Labor Secretary David Dickerson

Dickerson didn’t directly address the strength of the agency’s fatality investigations, except to say media were “cherry-picking” from the federal report to “support narrow claims that the program conducts inadequate fatality investigations.”

The federal report itself zoomed in on Kentucky’s fatality investigations in a “special study” included in the annual audit. Much of KyCIR’s reporting was drawn from that study, which experts said was an unusual step for the federal agency to take.

Due to shortcomings in the fatality investigations, the report concluded, Kentucky’s “workers are continuously exposed to serious hazards that remain unabated.”

“There is still much work to be done in the [KY OSH] program,” Dickerson wrote in the op-ed, “but we are seeing year-over-year improvements in worker safety, which these media reports fail to mention.”

The investigation noted that injury and illness rates are dropping in Kentucky. That reflects a national trend that has been ongoing since 2004. But Kentucky’s rates remain above the national average: the non-fatal incident rate was 3.3 persons per 100 full-time employees in 2017. The national rate that year was 2.8 persons per 100 full-time employees.

(Listen: ‘There will never be another Justin’)

Federal OSHA has the power to withhold funding, intervene in and even take over state-run programs that do not meet federal standards.

In its official response to the federal audit in August, the Labor Cabinet said it was implementing some changes, but defended its fatality investigations and disagreed with some findings.

The federal Department of Labor put Kentucky’s worker safety agency on a corrective action plan as a result of that federal audit.

Dickerson said in the op-ed that the Labor Cabinet is working closely with federal OSHA to improve the efficacy of the program, and will seek the assistance of the legislature if necessary.

(Fatal Flaws: In Kentucky, Deregulation And Worker Safety Collide)

Sen. Danny Carroll, a Republican from Paducah, chairs the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Tourism, and Labor. He said he was still getting up to speed on labor issues, but workplace safety is a priority.

Rep. Russell Webber, a Republican from Shepherdsville and the chair of the House Economic Development and Workforce Investment committee, did not respond to a request for an interview about worker safety issues.

The Labor Cabinet did not respond to request for additional comment.

Eleanor Klibanoff covered Rust Belt decline and revival in Pennsylvania. She also worked for NPR and attended the George Washington University.