Fatal Flaws

Published — February 1, 2019

KY OSH promises to ‘raise the bar’ with training and pay raises

A KY OSH safety compliance officer inspects a Carlisle, Ky., worksite after a fatality in December 2017. (Kentucky Labor Cabinet)

This story is part of a collaboration between the Center for Public Integrity, Ohio Valley ReSource and the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

Introduction

The Kentucky Labor Cabinet has announced plans to increase salaries, provide more training and buy more equipment for its occupational safety and health compliance officers.

The changes come on the heels of an investigative series by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, the Ohio Valley ReSource and the Center for Public Integrity, which first publicly revealed the state’s program was under serious federal scrutiny.

A federal audit, as well as KyCIR’s analysis, found that Kentucky’s Occupational Safety and Health agency (KY OSH) had failed to properly investigate nearly every worker fatality in a two-year period. Inspectors often didn’t interview eyewitnesses, missed worker safety violations and improperly blamed employees for their own deaths.

In its official response to the audit released in August, state officials defended their investigations. But now, the Labor Cabinet has announced a series of changes intended to “raise the bar for our compliance officers and for this state,” Acting Labor Secretary David Dickerson said in a press release.

Dickerson said in the release Wednesday evening that the Labor Cabinet has purchased equipment for inspectors, including voice recording devices and smartphones, and that KY OSH inspectors would see salaries increase starting February 1. The release didn’t specify how much the raises would be.

Last week, KyCIR reported that Kentucky paid its safety and health compliance officers less than any of the surrounding states. While states like Tennessee, Indiana and North Carolina, had recently raised salaries to help with staff retention, Kentucky continued to lag significantly behind.

In 2017, 63 percent of KY OSH inspectors had less than three years experience, according to the federal audit.

Cabinet spokesperson Susan West did not respond to a request Thursday for additional information about how much salaries would be increasing. KyCIR found that Kentucky’s entry-level compliance officers make about $30,500 a year; Virginia’s salary for new compliance officers was the next-lowest in the region at $36,000.

The Labor Cabinet also said in the announcement it will be providing additional training opportunities for inspectors. The federal audit found that supervisors were recommending their staff get training, but not actually sending them to the federal programs.

This week, 21 KY OSH inspectors did a three-day federal training in “investigative interview techniques.” Inspectors were taught to interview witnesses, develop direct questions and glean relevant information, according to the press release.

As the federal audit pointed out, in 2017, only two inspectors had attended the federally-mandated training.

Delanna Miller had one word to say about the training and other pending changes at KY OSH: “Finally.”

Miller’s husband, Justin, was electrocuted to death while working as a tree trimmer in Breathitt County in 2016. He was 23, and the couple was expecting their second child.

A KY OSH inspector didn’t issue Justin Miller’s employer any violations, though a later federal review found that the state should have issued two citations for safety issues.

“The investigation was not done adequately, not just in Justin’s case, but in all the cases I have been made aware of,” said Miller. “[Additional training] is definitely something that is much needed and has been a long time coming.”

In his statement, Dickerson seemed to agree.

“We are not done,” said Dickerson. “We still have work to do. But I am confident that the three goals of improving the training, equipment, and salary for OSH employees sets us on a path to success.”

Read more in Workers’ Rights

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