This story was published in partnership with the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.
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.”