Questions And Anxiety Mount Over COVID-19 Workplace Safety As More Businesses Reopen Friday, May 29 2020 

Gail Fleck is a school cafeteria worker in the greater Cincinnati area and lives with her 90-year-old father. She loves her job because she gets to work with kids. But she is worried she won’t be able to keep her dad safe if her work exposes her to the coronavirus and she unknowingly brings it home. 

“I’m scared, I’m worried. I feel like, we’re talking about life and death here and this is my father,” she said. 

Fleck, who didn’t want to name her workplace, said she hasn’t been back to work since before the schools went on spring break. When she ran out of sick days, she stopped receiving a paycheck. 

“I’ve just worked very hard at keeping myself and my father at home and not going out,” she said. 

Workers like Fleck across the Ohio Valley face difficult choices now that states are gradually reopening workplaces. Many don’t feel safe going back to work, and adding to the anxiety is the uncertainty about the enforcement of safety standards for businesses that are reopening. During pointed questioning at a Congressional hearing Thursday a top official with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was not able to say how many workplaces are seeing cases of COVID-19.  

Who Keeps Workers Safe?

OSHA is the main federal agency responsible for enforcing workplace safety standards. Ohio and West Virginia are among roughly half the states where OSHA has direct oversight of most work safety regulations. Kentucky is among the states with a federally approved work safety program administered by the state. The Kentucky Labor Cabinet said it is working with businesses to ensure they are complying with Kentucky’s minimum requirements.

“Notes of Deficiency, and if necessary, orders to cease operations will be issued to businesses that demonstrate they are not making substantive efforts to comply with the reopening requirements,” Kentucky Labor Cabinet Chief of Staff Marjorie Arnold said in an email.

Some work safety advocates have criticized the federal OSHA’s lack of involvement in workplaces during the coronavirus pandemic.

Safety and Health Program Director at the left-leaning nonprofit National Employment Law Project, Deborah Berkowitz, said OSHA should be taking more action to help keep workers safe. 

“The sad reality is that OSHA is failing here,” Berkowitz said. “They’ve actually just walked away from this whole pandemic and decided that though they could, they’re not going to do any enforcement. They’re not going to issue any mandates that are requirements, and instead, they’ll issue a poster or publication.”

Berkowitz was previously chief of staff and senior policy adviser for OSHA under the Obama administration. She advises if employers are not following the Centers for Disease Control guidance, the employee should file a complaint with OSHA. 

“Even though they’re not going to go out and do an inspection, I think they will call the employer and say a complaint has been filed,” Berkowitz said.  

She also said local health departments should be notified, in order for community spread to be prevented. Ultimately, Berkowitz said localities need to be smart about reopening and not sacrifice the safety of workers for the health of the economy. 

“But if you cut corners, and say that employers can do whatever they want at work, then most likely, you will see what’s happening in meatpacking plants and poultry plants right now around the country, and that is the spread of this disease will whip like wildfires around the workplace and back into the community,” she said. 

Heated Hearing

In an Education and Labor Committee House hearing Thursday witnesses with OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health were questioned about their role in keeping workers safe in the era of COVID-19. 

Principal Deputy Secretary of OSHA Loren Sweatt defended her agency’s decision against a new regulatory standard on coronavirus safety.

In questions from Democrats on the panel Sweatt was not able to say how many workplaces have reported cases of coronavirus. She also told the committee that a lawsuit against the agency, filed by the AFL-CIO, prevented her from answering some questions about OSHA’s actions. 

Sweatt said there have been at least 1,374 whistleblower COVID-19 complaints as of May 26. However, none of those businesses have been sanctioned for retaliation against employees. She said there’s no statute of limitations on investigations of those complaints. 

“While investigations are ongoing I can tell you in certain circumstances, we have seen resolution almost immediately when the whistleblower calls to initiate the investigation,” Sweatt said. 

Sweatt clarified that a resolution means a worker getting their job back as well as back pay after allegedly being punished by their employer for making a complaint to OSHA. 

NIOSH Director John Howard said his organization has just started tracking coronavirus cases in the workplace, about two months after the virus was declared a pandemic. 

“We have been getting better at tracking occupation and industry for COVID-19 cases,” he said. “We have a new case report form that we are hoping that the states will start using.”

Howard said NIOSH is now beginning to track coronavirus cases in meatpacking plants. Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia have all seen large outbreaks in meat processing facilities as workers try to keep up with soaring demand from consumers. 

Back To Work

Ohio Valley workers are left to navigate a lot of uncertainty as many of them return to work amid health and safety concerns. And some state actions appear to limit an employees’ options. For example, in Ohio, the state’s Department of Job and Family Services now has a form online where employers can report employees who quit or refuse to work due to concerns about COVID-19. Officials in Ohio say the form has always been available online but has only changed focus so employers can report workers who use the fear of contracting the virus as a reason for not wanting to return to work. 

Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia have been working to reopen their economies a few sectors at a time. The first sector to reopen was healthcare. Now restaurants are opening to in-person dining, as well as recreational activities, fitness centers, and cosmetology services. Many of the facilities aren’t the same as they were pre-pandemic, with limited occupancy and increased personal protective equipment for customers and workers. 

Tom Tsai is an assistant professor in Health Policy and Management at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health and the Harvard Global Health Institute. 

“The overall message, though is more important than the thresholds for reopening, is that this is not an on-off switch, but really a dial,” he said. “The states need to really consider having very clear metrics on what success or failure looks like.”

Tsai said there is already some “social distancing fatigue” people are feeling and that’s why it’s important to get the policy correct now.

“Because in some ways, once the floodgates open, in terms of trying to return to normal, it’s going to be very hard to reinstitute social distancing measures,” he said.

Coronavirus Concerns Rise As Ohio Valley Meatpacking Workers Fall Sick Friday, Apr 10 2020 

As the number of coronavirus cases surge across the country, some meatpacking facilities have been temporarily shuttered due to workers falling ill to the virus. Three workers in Georgia have even died.

With workers at some Ohio Valley facilities now testing positive for the virus, worker safety advocates are raising concerns about how adequately workers are being protected and the implications for the food supply.

West Virginia’s poultry and livestock industries bring in the large majority of the state’s agricultural revenue, with poultry and eggs bringing in approximately $387,884,000 in 2017. Most of that production happens in the state’s eastern panhandle in places including Pendleton County, where Steve Conrad raises turkeys for a regional cooperative.

He said a worker tested positive for the coronavirus last week at the cooperative’s poultry processing facility across the state border in Hinton, Virginia. While Conrad believes the situation at the facility is under control, the potential for spread of the virus at such processing facilities could be substantial. 

“I would think it would spread like wildfire, to tell you the truth, if it’s as infectious as what they say it is,” Conrad said. “The people are standing probably within three feet of each other as either they’re taking the meat off the bones or taking the feathers off the carcass, and pulling the guts out.”

He said the cooperative has taken measures such as removing microwaves used by workers at the facility’s cafeteria, using masks in the facility, and monitoring the health of workers. Executive leadership at the cooperative could not be immediately reached for comment regarding social distancing and other measures at the facility.

Conrad also said unlike the other industries, it can be difficult to slow down the meatpacking production. 

“If you’re building cars, you can just shut down the line. You know, that steel is going to be ready for you whenever you start up again,” Conrad said. “But in the poultry business, or the cattle business or hogs … they’re growing so many pounds on a daily basis. We can’t shut off the feed. They got to be harvested.”

Cargill is one of the latest meatpacking companies to close a processing facility to protect their workers’ health. And more cases are beginning to pop up in Ohio Valley facilities elsewhere. 

Growing Risk

Caitlin Blair is a spokeswoman for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 277, a union chapter representing people working for Pilgrim’s Pride, Specialty Foods Group, Tyson Foods, and JBS USA, at meatpacking plants throughout Kentucky and in southern Indiana. 

She said there have been some positive coronavirus tests among these facilities, and the union has been pushing meatpacking companies to better protect union workers.

“A lot of our employers are doing really well, social distancing, especially in public areas, or common areas like break rooms. But there’s also a lot of room for improvement,” Blair said. “The machines are loud, and it’s a dangerous shop, normally. And the coronavirus has just made that job even more dangerous.”

Blair said while Kentucky already considers meatpacking workers essential, her union is trying to get the state government to classify workers as first responders to get better access to personal protective equipment and access to child care services. The union is also asking companies to slow down the speed of their processing plants to allow for more protective measures.

Blair said some companies have offered some union members one-time bonuses, ranging from $300 to $600. But she said these bonuses may not be paid out for months and are sometimes tied to worker attendance.

“Various employers have tied that to perfect attendance at a time when day cares are closed, schools are closed, people are having to scramble for childcare,” she said. “Those bonuses should be paid immediately with no attendance strings attached.”

Protections and bonuses vary among the major meatpacking companies in the Ohio Valley. Tyson Foods said the company is checking the temperature of workers before they enter plants, building dividers between workstations, and adding space between workers. Pilgrim’s Pride and JBS USA is also setting up “triage tents” to test temperatures and stagger break times for workers.

Yet one worker safety advocate argues the mismatched protection standards across the industry could leave some workers more vulnerable to the coronavirus, and says the federal government should do more.

Deborah Berkowitz is worker health and safety program director for the National Law Employment Law Project, an advocacy group for workers’ rights. She said the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has released guidance for employers regarding coronavirus, but there isn’t a required standard for COVID-19 among the meatpacking industry. 

“What you’re finding is a lot of companies, because there’s no mandated requirements, are just doing a little bit here, a little bit there, but not enough to protect workers,” Berkowitz said. “That is a devastatingly dangerous situation for workers to be in.”

Berkowitz, who served as a senior policy adviser for OSHA, said by having a standard of mandated social distancing and extra precautions for sanitizing, these plants can better protect their workers.

Supply Concerns

For Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles in addition to concerns about worker safety, the state’s most lucrative agriculture industry is at risk. Livestock and poultry products brought in more than $3 billion to the state in 2017.

“One of my biggest concerns is keeping our meat processors open for business,” Quarles said. “A short disruption or shut down of a processing plant can ripple all the way down to the farm level instantly.”

Quarles also said the Kentucky Department of Agriculture is still developing guidance with the Kentucky Farm Bureau to be issued to farmers regarding appropriate coronavirus measures. In the meantime, he asks those in the industry to follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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.