Beshear Reinstates Worker Safety Board Bevin Dissolved Friday, Jan 10 2020 

Gov. Andy Beshear announced Friday that he has reinstated the Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board, which former Governor Matt Bevin abolished in July 2018.

“Every Kentuckian should be safe at their place of employment,” Beshear said in a statement. “We have worked with industry leaders to reestablish the board and ensure we have professionals from across the Commonwealth that are committed to helping strengthen our workplace safety standards.”

The OSH Standards Board is responsible for adopting, modifying or suspending the state’s worker safety regulations. As a state-run OSHA plan, Kentucky’s worker safety regulations must be “as effective as” the federal standards.

The board is chaired by Labor Secretary Larry Roberts. Beshear appointed 12 members, representing industry, agriculture, safety and health and labor.

Bevin abolished the OSH Standards Board through executive order and transferred all of its powers to the labor secretary. Beshear, who was the attorney general at the time, and Senate Democrats called for the board to be reinstated.

The labor secretary at the time, David Dickerson, wrote in a July 2018 letter to Senate Democrats that disbanding the board was “consistent” with Bevin’s agenda “to eliminate ‘business as usual’ in Frankfort, to implement meaningful and reasonable reforms to the size and scope of state government and to serve the people…through more economical and efficient means.”

A November 2018 KyCIR investigation found that Kentucky’s OSHA agency had failed to properly investigate nearly every workplace fatality in a two-year period. Inspectors often failed to interview eyewitnesses, ignored worker safety violations and, in some cases, improperly blamed the deceased employee for the incident.

(Read the investigation, “Fatal Flaws: How Kentucky Is Failing Its Workers“)

KyCIR reported that Kentucky was facing potential federal action for these, and other, shortcomings in its state-run OSHA program. When Bevin disbanded the OSH Standards Board, Beshear questioned whether it could violate the state-federal agreement and incite further action from the feds.

Dickerson said it would not.

In the wake of that investigation, the state promised salary raises, additional training and new equipment for inspectors. House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins, now senior advisor to Beshear, proposed a bill to reinstate the OSH Standards Board during the 2019 legislative session. It died in committee.

“It’s important to have that board in place,” Adkins told KyCIR in February 2019. “I think it sends a strong message across Kentucky that we are here for a safe workplace, we demand it and it’s a priority.”

Donna Ringo, a former member of the board and a safety and health consultant, applauded the reinstatement of the board. She said a board made up of people from different areas of expertise is more valuable than vesting that power in one person.

She said she had been alarmed by some of the deregulation efforts she saw under Bevin, and hopes this is the beginning of Beshear’s efforts to reinvest in worker safety.

“The cost of cleanup of a problem that you ignore is so much more expensive that the cost of regulation,” Ringo said. “It’s always easier to put in place systems and regulations so people don’t get hurt.”

Beshear Reinstates Worker Safety Board Bevin Dissolved Friday, Jan 10 2020 

Gov. Andy Beshear announced Friday that he has reinstated the Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board, which former Gov. Matt Bevin abolished in July 2018.

“Every Kentuckian should be safe at their place of employment,” Beshear said in a statement. “We have worked with industry leaders to reestablish the board and ensure we have professionals from across the Commonwealth that are committed to helping strengthen our workplace safety standards.”

The OSH Standards Board is responsible for adopting, modifying or suspending the state’s worker safety regulations. As a state-run OSHA plan, Kentucky’s worker safety regulations must be “as effective as” the federal standards.

The board is chaired by Labor Secretary Larry Roberts. Beshear appointed 12 members, representing industry, agriculture, safety and health and labor.

Bevin abolished the OSH Standards Board through executive order and transferred all of its powers to the labor secretary. Beshear, who was the attorney general at the time, and Senate Democrats called for the board to be reinstated.

The labor secretary at the time, David Dickerson, wrote in a July 2018 letter to Senate Democrats that disbanding the board was “consistent” with Bevin’s agenda “to eliminate ‘business as usual’ in Frankfort, to implement meaningful and reasonable reforms to the size and scope of state government and to serve the people…through more economical and efficient means.”

A November 2018 KyCIR investigation found that Kentucky’s OSHA agency had failed to properly investigate nearly every workplace fatality in a two-year period. Inspectors often failed to interview eyewitnesses, ignored worker safety violations and, in some cases, improperly blamed the deceased employee for the incident.

(Read the investigation, “Fatal Flaws: How Kentucky Is Failing Its Workers“)

KyCIR reported that Kentucky was facing potential federal action for these, and other, shortcomings in its state-run OSHA program. When Bevin disbanded the OSH Standards Board, Beshear questioned whether it could violate the state-federal agreement and incite further action from the feds.

Dickerson said it would not.

In the wake of that investigation, the state promised salary raises, additional training and new equipment for inspectors. House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins, now senior advisor to Beshear, proposed a bill to reinstate the OSH Standards Board during the 2019 legislative session. It died in committee.

“It’s important to have that board in place,” Adkins told KyCIR in February 2019. “I think it sends a strong message across Kentucky that we are here for a safe workplace, we demand it and it’s a priority.”

Donna Ringo, a former member of the board and a safety and health consultant, applauded the reinstatement of the board. She said a board made up of people from different areas of expertise is more valuable than vesting that power in one person.

She said she had been alarmed by some of the deregulation efforts she saw under Bevin, and hopes this is the beginning of Beshear’s efforts to reinvest in worker safety.

“The cost of cleanup of a problem that you ignore is so much more expensive that the cost of regulation,” said Ringo. “It’s always easier to put in place systems and regulations so people don’t get hurt.”

Contact Eleanor Klibanoff at (502) 814.6544 or eklibanoff@kycir.org.

The post Beshear Reinstates Worker Safety Board Bevin Dissolved appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

New Federal Audit Optimistic About Changes At Kentucky OSHA Thursday, Jul 18 2019 

Kentucky’s worker safety agency is on the right track, according to its latest federal audit, but it needs to continue to improve how it investigates deaths on the job in the wake of significant lapses. 

The audit comes a year after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration found more shortcomings in Kentucky’s agency than any of the other 27 state-run worker safety programs. Kentucky’s Occupational Safety and Health program has seen significant leadership turnover, policy changes and media scrutiny since it received the critical report last summer. 

The new audit was released this month and covered the agency’s work in fiscal year 2018. It determined that Kentucky has either resolved or made progress toward addressing all of the findings from the previous year, and no new serious issues were identified. 

“We had a whole bunch of things to fix in a very short period of time,” said Dwayne Depp, Kentucky’s commissioner for workplace standards. “We are a year into it…and I think we’ve done a really good job of turning this big ship around.”

[Graphic: OSHA findings, then and now]

The agency received high marks on the audit for catching up on required trainings, beginning to accept electronic and non-employee complaints, and improving its documentation in some cases. But the agency is still under scrutiny for its handling of worker fatalities, a problem first revealed in an investigative series by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, the Ohio Valley ReSource and the Center for Public Integrity

Kentucky failed to properly investigate deaths on the job for at least two years, often not interviewing eyewitnesses, not identifying the cause of the accident and, in some cases, improperly blaming the worker for their own death. 

Conducting thorough fatality investigations remains a work in progress, according to this year’s audit.

That’s a concern for David Michaels, a professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health and a former Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health. Michaels reviewed the new audit at KyCIR’s request.

“While the Kentucky plan is making progress, it still has some distance to go before it is up to the level it should be,” Michaels wrote in an email. 

Unlike last year, when the federal review team examined two years worth of fatality investigations, this year’s follow-up report looked at a random sampling of fatality, safety and health inspections, and cases where no inspection took place. The audit offered no specific criticisms of these files and focused mostly on the agency’s plans to improve going forward. 

Depp’s proposed changes address many of federal OSHA’s concerns, but they were not implemented in time to be judged during this audit period, which ran from October 2017 to September 2018.

(Read: “Ky. Worker Safety Leaders Promise Grieving Families They’ll Do Better“)

Shortly after Depp took over last July, he directed the inspectors to interview all eyewitnesses and document those interviews, either by recording or writing detailed narratives. But the agency didn’t buy digital recorders until November. It was still distributing them when the federal review team was on site in January. Kentucky’s inspectors received training in investigations and interviewing in January. 

Similarly, in August 2018, all inspectors were directed to explicitly state the cause of accidents in case reports. In October, a review process was implemented to ensure that was happening. When inspectors were on site in January, a checklist was still being developed. 

Depp told KyCIR he didn’t think the changes rolled out slowly, and that doing things right takes longer than people might like. 

In the state’s written response, Depp said he is confident that, by next year, “OSHA will close out the remaining findings and observations to the standard expected by Congress, the Kentucky General Assembly, and the citizens of the Commonwealth.” 

Though the audit contained no new serious issues, it did cite two areas that Kentucky should work on before they get worse. 

For one, Kentucky did not do as many health or safety inspections as it told federal OSHA it would; and the inspections that it did do found no violations more often than is typical, meaning inspectors were either not identifying hazards or not inspecting high-priority workplaces. 

The audit also flagged that Kentucky is more than two years overdue to meet a requirement that it increase its maximum penalty for worker safety violations. The current maximum penalty in Kentucky is $7,000 for a serious violation, compared to $13,260 federally. 

If the legislature doesn’t vote to increase Kentucky’s penalties before the next audit, the state plan will not meet the basic requirement of being “at least as effective” as federal standards. 

Depp said raising the penalties was a topic of discussion, but the cabinet’s legal team would decide the legislative priorities. 

Contact Eleanor Klibanoff at eklibanoff@kycir.org or (502) 814.6544.

New Federal Audit Optimistic About Changes At Kentucky OSHA Thursday, Jul 18 2019 

Kentucky’s worker safety agency is on the right track, according to its latest federal audit, but it needs to continue to improve how it investigates deaths on the job in the wake of significant lapses. 

The audit comes a year after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration found more shortcomings in Kentucky’s agency than any of the other 27 state-run worker safety programs. Kentucky’s Occupational Safety and Health program has seen significant leadership turnover, policy changes and media scrutiny since it received the critical report last summer. 

The new audit was released this month and covered the agency’s work in fiscal year 2018. It determined that Kentucky has either resolved or made progress toward addressing all of the findings from the previous year, and no new serious issues were identified. 

“We had a whole bunch of things to fix in a very short period of time,” said Dwayne Depp, Kentucky’s commissioner for workplace standards. “We are a year into it…and I think we’ve done a really good job of turning this big ship around.”

[Story continues below graphic]


Graphic by Alexandra Kanik

The agency received high marks on the audit for catching up on required trainings, beginning to accept electronic and non-employee complaints, and improving its documentation in some cases. But the agency is still under scrutiny for its handling of worker fatalities, a problem first revealed in an investigative series by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, the Ohio Valley ReSource and the Center for Public Integrity

Kentucky failed to properly investigate deaths on the job for at least two years, often not interviewing eyewitnesses, not identifying the cause of the accident and, in some cases, improperly blaming the worker for their own death. 

Conducting thorough fatality investigations remains a work in progress, according to this year’s audit.

That’s a concern for David Michaels, a professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health and a former Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health. Michaels reviewed the new audit at KyCIR’s request.

“While the Kentucky plan is making progress, it still has some distance to go before it is up to the level it should be,” Michaels wrote in an email. 

Unlike last year, when the federal review team examined two years worth of fatality investigations, this year’s follow-up report looked at a random sampling of fatality, safety and health inspections, and cases where no inspection took place. The audit offered no specific criticisms of these files and focused mostly on the agency’s plans to improve going forward. 

Depp’s proposed changes address many of federal OSHA’s concerns, but they were not implemented in time to be judged during this audit period, which ran from October 2017 to September 2018.

(Read: “Ky. Worker Safety Leaders Promise Grieving Families They’ll Do Better“)

Shortly after Depp took over last July, he directed the inspectors to interview all eyewitnesses and document those interviews, either by recording or writing detailed narratives. But the agency didn’t buy digital recorders until November. It was still distributing them when the federal review team was on site in January. Kentucky’s inspectors received training in investigations and interviewing in January. 

Similarly, in August 2018, all inspectors were directed to explicitly state the cause of accidents in case reports. In October, a review process was implemented to ensure that was happening. When inspectors were on site in January, a checklist was still being developed. 

Depp told KyCIR he didn’t think the changes rolled out slowly, and that doing things right takes longer than people might like. 

In the state’s written response, Depp said he is confident that, by next year, “OSHA will close out the remaining findings and observations to the standard expected by Congress, the Kentucky General Assembly, and the citizens of the Commonwealth.” 

[Story continues below graphic]


Though the audit contained no new serious issues, it did cite two areas that Kentucky should work on before they get worse. 

For one, Kentucky did not do as many health or safety inspections as it told federal OSHA it would; and the inspections that it did do found no violations more often than is typical, meaning inspectors were either not identifying hazards or not inspecting high-priority workplaces. 

The audit also flagged that Kentucky is more than two years overdue to meet a requirement that it increase its maximum penalty for worker safety violations. The current maximum penalty in Kentucky is $7,000 for a serious violation, compared to $13,260 federally. 

If the legislature doesn’t vote to increase Kentucky’s penalties before the next audit, the state plan will not meet the basic requirement of being “at least as effective” as federal standards. 

Depp said raising the penalties was a topic of discussion, but the cabinet’s legal team would decide the legislative priorities. 

Contact Eleanor Klibanoff at eklibanoff@kycir.org or (502) 814.6544.

The post New Federal Audit Optimistic About Changes At Kentucky OSHA appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

Ky. Worker Safety Leaders Promise Grieving Families They’ll Do Better Thursday, May 16 2019 

 

Mike and Pam Oakley have been telling this story for years: how their 17-year-old son died on his second day of work, and how the state worker safety agency failed to hold his employer accountable.

They’ve told their story to anyone who would listen. The state never did.

But now, after the state worker safety agency’s failings have been exposed by the federal government and an investigation by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, state officials are finally paying attention to people like the Oakleys.

In recent weeks, the Labor Cabinet has announced major reforms for the agency, specifically around how it investigates fatalities.

And now, three top cabinet officials have driven to this small town, an hour south of Frankfort, on a Sunday, to share those plans with the Oakleys directly.

They’ve arrived as the Oakleys are setting up for their annual Workers Memorial Day event in Garrard County, laying out photos of their son, Grant, around the lobby of the Grand Theater.

Dwayne Depp, commissioner for Kentucky’s Department of Workplace Standards, shook Mike and Pam’s hands, and offered his sympathies. He asked what he could do to help.

“Y’all have no idea what this means to see you three standing here,” said Mike, choking back tears. “You have no idea.”

In Wake Of Loss, Family Pushes For Change

While Mike was eager to pin down some promises from the officials, Pam just wanted to tell them about the real person behind the mishandled fatality investigation. She wore a black t-shirt that read “Honoring GTO,” for Grant Thomas Oakley, her only child.

She pointed to a photo of Grant, an apple-cheeked 17-year-old, his arms crossed in a blue plaid shirt with the sleeves cut off. A ruffle of blonde hair sticks out from his camo baseball cap.

“He played the tuba in the band,” she told Depp, pointing out his marching band state championship medals. “He got first place in his junior year.”

She talked about how he was young, but he wanted to work.

“That’s just who he was,” she told Depp in a near whisper, her voice cracking. “That’s just who he was.”

Nicholas Volosky

Grant Oakley’s parents set up some mementos from his life and death at their annual Workers Memorial Day event in Garrard County, Kentucky.

Grant got his first part-time job at Bluegrass Agricultural Distributors, right across the street from his house. His second day of work happened to be Election Day, 2015, and he agreed to cover a shift so other employees could go to the polls. Grant wasn’t yet old enough to vote.

At work that day, he was riding on the side of a forklift. When he hopped off, his pants or shoes got caught and he ended up under the machine. He died at the hospital.

The Oakleys had a lot of questions. But when they got a copy of the state’s investigation, they found that investigators interviewed few of the eyewitnesses. The handwritten notes were illegible and disjointed.

Kentucky’s Occupational Safety and Health agency fined Bluegrass Agricultural Distributors $3,500 for not having a forklift training program. For the company, and the state, the case was closed.

For the loved ones Grant left behind, though, it was just the beginning. At Grant’s school, all the students honored him by dressing in flannel and camouflage. Mike started teaching OSHA safety classes. And he and Pam began pushing for more answers.

They asked federal OSHA to review the state’s handling of Grant’s death. The feds agreed that the investigation was so insufficient that they couldn’t even determine whether the violation the state issued was, in fact, correct. Federal OSHA proposed no consequences.

The Oakleys’ complaint to federal OSHA was one of several that prompted a special investigation into Kentucky’s worker safety program. A federal audit, released last summer, found that the state failed to properly investigate nearly every workplace fatality during fiscal years 2016 and 2017, including Grant’s.

That audit was first publicized as part of “Fatal Flaws,” an investigation by KyCIR, the Ohio Valley ReSource and the Center for Public Integrity. In that investigation, the Oakleys shared the story of Grant’s life, and his death, and how they’ve found themselves fighting for answers for all of Kentucky’s workers.

The Oakleys are relieved that changes are finally, slowly, beginning to emerge. They’re eager to be part of the reforms. But they’ve also learned to be suspicious of government promises.

“We’ve heard a lot of talk,” said Pam, trailing off.

Mike finished her thought.

“We’re going to be waiting to see what’s actually done.”

At Memorial Event, Signs Of Change

The Oakleys’ annual event is one of many Workers Memorial Day events held around the country on April 28th, the day the Occupational Safety and Health Act went into effect in 1971. But this event is no celebration of OSHA.

As the Oakleys have dedicated their lives to getting better treatment for victims of workplace accidents, they’ve connected with numerous other grieving families along the way.

Many of these families gather at the Oakleys’ annual Workers Memorial Day events, some driving hours across the state to Garrard County. It has become, over the past few years, a rallying point in the fight for acknowledgement from Kentucky’s state-run OSHA agency.

Last year, Ervin Dimeny, then the commissioner for the Department of Workplace Standards, arrived late and sat in the back as speaker after speaker eviscerated his agency.

After the event, Dimeny spoke to a reporter. All fatalities are tragic, he said, but there was nothing his agency could do to bring people back. He defended the worker safety agency, saying there are “states that are doing better and states that are doing worse” than Kentucky.

But Kentucky’s most recent federal audit, which covered Dimeny’s tenure, had more failings than any of the other 27 states that operate their own worker safety agencies.

According to the audit, state investigators routinely failed to interview eyewitnesses, identify the cause of incidents or flag all possible safety violations. In some cases, the state improperly blamed the employee for his or her own death.

These shoddy investigations, the federal audit concluded, left workers “continuously exposed to serious hazards that remain unabated.” And they left families more confused in the wake of a workplace tragedy.

Former Labor Secretary Derrick Ramsey moved to the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet last summer. He took Dimeny and much of the cabinet’s senior leadership with him.

That’s when Depp was brought in. He said he was hired specifically to reform the agency in the wake of the audit.

Since KyCIR’s investigation was released in November, the Labor Cabinet has announced an internal review of the state’s worker safety program. Labor officials have increased salaries in an effort to retain inspectors, and issued press releases about the required trainings their employees are now attending.

While Dimeny downplayed problems, Depp admitted in a recent interview that the state had, at times, failed to properly investigate fatalities and said he was trying to build a “culture of accountability” that had not always existed at the agency.

Dwayne Depp, Commissioner of the Department of Workplace Standards, speaks with KyCIR on Monday April 15th. (Tyler Franklin/WFPL)

“I don’t want another family to experience some of the things that some of those families … have experienced when all they want is answers,” Depp said. “I feel like our job is to be able to give them those answers.”

In that interview, he said he had not met with any of the families who had their cases mishandled. A few weeks later, he showed up at the Workers Memorial Day in Garrard County.

Depp came with David Dickerson, the top official at the Labor Cabinet appointed by Gov. Matt Bevin, and Chuck Stribling, the state employee responsible for making sure Kentucky’s worker safety agency is meeting federal standards.

Only Stribling was with the agency when Oakley died, or during the time period covered by federal OSHA’s scathing assessment.

But, now, after years of closed doors and evasive non-answers from state officials, the Oakleys were finally hearing directly from three top Labor Cabinet officials.

“We are a work in progress,” Depp said. “We’re changing a lot of things that we’ve been doing, really focusing on making sure that when we get done, we’ll be able to answer all the questions that the family has at the end of our investigation.”

In the long run, the Oakleys want more than just a drop-by visit. Even if they can’t get Grant’s case reopened the company he worked for has since closed, and the eyewitnesses are long gone they want a guarantee that this will never happen to another family. They want to be part of the change the agency is promising, starting by meeting with the inspectors to educate them on how to deal with grieving families.

Nicholas Volosky

Pam and Mike Oakley speak with Dwayne Depp (left), commissioner for workplace standards at the Kentucky Labor Cabinet during a Workers Memorial Day event in Garrard County, Kentucky.

Depp offered to come back, with Dickerson, for a follow-up meeting. He gave Mike Oakley his card with his personal cell phone number, and told him to call anytime.

“We’re happy to have your input,” Dickerson said. “Please don’t be bashful.”

Mike Oakley, towering over the state officials in head-to-toe denim with his big, gray beard, burst into laughter. Pam joined in.

“You get to know me, you’ll see that I’m not,” Mike responded. “I wasn’t given that gift.”

Later, Dickerson told KyCIR that Depp’s reforms have his full support, as well as the governor’s.

“I will tell you today, this iteration of the Labor Cabinet cares about doing thorough, competent, complete investigations to give families some sense of closure in the event of an unfortunate occurrence,” Dickerson said.

‘They deserve so much more’

The state officials took their seats in the Grand Theater, the only suits in a crowd of work shirts and motorcycle vests.

All around them were the friends and families — the living victims — of those who died on the job, only to have the state fall short in investigating the circumstances.

Eleanor Klibanoff

Dwayne Depp (left), commissioner for workplace standards at the Kentucky Labor Cabinet, sits next to Labor Secretary David Dickerson and worker safety official Chuck Stribling during a Workers Memorial Day event in Garrard County, Kentucky.

Some of Mike’s students were there too. After Grant’s death, Mike got certified to teach OSHA safety courses.

This year, Mike’s speech was brief and conciliatory. It was almost hopeful.

“We are here to honor those workers that didn’t make it home,” he said. “We’re not here for us. We’re here for them. Because I, personally, refuse to let these people lay dormant in a file somewhere as a number.”

He looked directly at the three state officials sitting in the audience, hoping they were finally hearing all the grief and frustration and pain these families have suffered.

“They are so much more, and they deserve so much more.”

As Mike stepped down from the stage, Andy Sims took his place. The Oakleys brought Sims, the Commonwealth’s Attorney for Jessamine and Garrard County, into their fight as well. Sims wanted to bring criminal charges related to Grant’s death, but he said he was hampered by the state’s poor OSHA investigation.

Sims began slowly reading the names of every worker who died in Kentucky over the last year. Grant’s friends and some of Mike’s students walked on stage, one by one, wearing name tags to represent each of the fallen.

After the speeches, they wrote the names of the people they were representing on balloons. The crowd moved outside and reassembled in a circle around a small obelisk in the dusty parking lot. They released the balloons, and everyone watched them float away until they disappeared.

Since Nov. 3rd, 2015, the Oakleys have been fighting in memory of Grant. But over the years, it’s become just as much about these people, and the loved ones they leave behind. The Oakleys have been fighting so no one else will have to.

And they have no plans to stop. But for the first time in years, they may be fighting alongside the state, rather than against it.

Contact Eleanor Klibanoff at eklibanoff@kycir.org or (502) 814.6544.

 

The post Ky. Worker Safety Leaders Promise Grieving Families They’ll Do Better appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

Ky. Worker Safety Commissioner Acknowledges Failures, Promises Culture Change Wednesday, Apr 17 2019 

Dwayne Depp, Commissioner of the Department of Workplace Standards, speaks with KyCIR on Monday April 15th. (Tyler Franklin/WFPL)

In his first interview since a scathing federal audit and a KyCIR investigative series, the commissioner of the state Department of Workplace Standards acknowledged that agency culture, a lack of accountability and staffing shortages had often led to poor investigations.

But Commissioner Dwayne Depp, who oversees the Kentucky Occupational Safety and Health agency, said that after years of “challenges and deficiencies,” Kentucky’s worker safety agency is on the right track.

A federal audit last year found that the agency had failed to properly investigate nearly every death on the job in a two-year period. In its response to the audit, the state initially stood by the quality of its investigations.

That federal audit was first revealed in Fatal Flaws, a joint investigation by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, the Ohio Valley ReSource and the Center for Public Integrity. The Labor Cabinet declined repeated requests for interviews, both before and after the series ran in November.

“I can assure you that the things that we put in place now corrects all those things,” Depp said. “It doesn’t make it right. It doesn’t go back and fix those things that happened in the past. But moving forward, we feel like we got the right plan and the right people in place.”

In July, Depp joined the Labor Cabinet, which oversees the state-run Kentucky Occupational Safety and Health program. When workers die on the job, KY OSH inspectors are charged with investigating the circumstances of the death, and determining whether an employer was complying with state safety and health standards.

Depp said he was brought on specifically in response to the critical federal audit, which reviewed a time period before his tenure. He said the agency is still a work in progress, but he’s committed to turning it around.

“We had a lot of repair work to do with our federal partners, a lot of repair work to do with the citizens of the commonwealth, we had repair work to do with our own team members,” he said.

Additional training, increased salaries

Depp said that compliance officers, tasked with ensuring the safety of worksites around the state, have received additional training in investigations, documentation and how to write a case report.

“We had a culture here for a number of years that it was not necessary to interview all the witnesses,” said Depp, an 18-year veteran of the Kentucky State Police. “As someone who has done investigations my whole career, I think that in order to find the truth, you have to interview all the witnesses.”

Inspectors are now required to identify the cause of accidents and interview all potential eyewitnesses to a fatality, Depp said. The agency has also held trainings on respect, empathy and professionalism.

“We’re holding [our employees] accountable at a much higher level than what they’ve been held accountable before,” he said. “Some of our team members don’t like that. Some of our team members embrace that, because they know that it’s been lacking in the past.”

The agency has increased salaries in an effort to retain investigators and Depp said they are considering modifying benefits to make the job more appealing. He said they are working to fill vacant positions. He doesn’t think the agency currently needs a budget increase.

Balancing education and investigations

A year ago, former Labor Cabinet Secretary Derrick Ramsey laid out his approach to worker safety on WKMS Radio.

“We are going to educate, we’re going to educate, we’re going to educate and we’re going to educate, and then citate,” said Ramsey, who is now the Education and Workforce Development Secretary.

Depp said prioritizing voluntary education programs over compliance is “absolutely not” his approach.

He said to “ensure that the employers know that we are watching,” the agency needs to be inspecting and citing companies that have safety violations.

This is part of the culture shift that Depp has been tasked with implementing. He said his changes have the full support of current Labor Secretary David Dickerson and Gov. Matt Bevin.

“We’ve had a lot of leadership failures,” he said. “When I say leadership, I mean, first-line level leadership all the way to the very top over the past several years, under both administrations.”

‘Not really anything I can go back and do’

Those failures, Depp acknowledged, have left many families with questions after their loved ones have died on the job. But Depp doesn’t offer much in the way of answers.

“I wish that things would have been done a little bit differently,” he said. “We want to make sure that they know that we’re doing everything that we can to correct those issues.”

“However, that was not under my tenure and there’s not really anything that I can go back and do.”

Depp acknowledged that his agency can investigate any workplace, even if it hasn’t had a fatality, but said they were prioritizing more recent complaints and fatalities.

No one from the Labor Cabinet has met with any of the families that filed complaints with federal OSHA about Kentucky’s fatality investigations, but Depp said he was considering attending a Worker’s Memorial Day event at the end of the month.

Depp said his focus is on moving the agency forward. In the last audit, federal OSHA identified more shortcomings in Kentucky’s system than any of the 28 states and territories that run their own worker safety program. His goal is to have zero areas for improvement in the next federal audit.

He said he hopes these families know that their complaints were heard, and that “under no circumstances do we want any families to feel like [they] have in the past.”

Contact Eleanor Klibanoff at eklibanoff@kycir.org or (502) 814.6544.

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