Kentuckians deserve balanced discussion of worker safety

Published 6:35 am Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Earlier this year, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued its fiscal year 2017 Comprehensive Federal Annual Monitoring and Evaluation Report, a semi-annual review of Kentucky’s Occupational Safety and Health program.

Media outlets recently seized on this report, cherry-picking portions of it to support narrow claims that the program conducts inadequate fatality investigations and is “failing” Kentucky workers. Kentuckians deserve a more balanced discussion of the report and to be informed of the actions that are underway at the Kentucky Labor Cabinet in response to many of the findings set forth in the report.

The reality is that there is still much work to be done in the occupational safety and health program, but we are seeing year-over-year improvements in worker safety throughout Kentucky, which these media reports fail to mention.

In 2017, Kentucky’s non-fatal incident rate was 3.3 persons per 100 full-time employees, a decrease from a rate of 3.4 in 2016 and a rate of 3.7 in 2015. Cases involving lost work time have decreased from 1.1 per 100 full-time employees in 2015 to 1.0 in 2016 and 0.9 in 2017. These rates have decreased despite the fact that the number of employed individuals in this state has increased by more than 87,700 during this same time.

In other words, not only are more Kentuckians working, but they are working in safer environments.

Prior to becoming Acting Secretary of the Labor Cabinet, I spent nearly 40 years in the logging, lumber, and forestry industries — regularly cited as one of the most dangerous industries in the U.S. — I made workplace safety the top priority for my business.

After we employed a number of safety-centric protocols at our family sawmill, our injury rates dropped, our workers’ compensation insurance payments plummeted, and our productivity skyrocketed. I have used my experience in the business sector to improve worker safety across Kentucky.

While we have made significant strides on worker safety issues throughout the state, there is much work still to be done. The federal evaluation report identified a number of unacceptable issues in the Kentucky Occupational Safety and Health program that must be improved. The Labor Cabinet is currently working to tackle these problems head-on.

The hard work of turning the Kentucky Occupational Safety and Health program around is well underway. In July, I named Dwayne F. Depp, an 18-year veteran of the Kentucky State Police and certified law-enforcement instructor, as the commissioner of the Department of Workplace Standards. Since Commissioner Depp assumed office, the department has ratcheted up training requirements for investigators and has instituted mandatory deadlines to reduce report lapse times.

Additionally, and importantly, we reached out to our federal partners within OSHA to expand the lines of communication and strengthen our relationship. We view OSHA not as an obstacle, but, rather, as a resource and a teammate in this important effort.

In the coming weeks and months, the Labor Cabinet’s leadership will continue its review of the Kentucky Occupational Safety and Health program and will make or recommend changes that are needed to increase its effectiveness. If necessary, we will seek the assistance of the General Assembly, and we will continue to obtain the input of OSHA.

Our fundamental mission will always be to ensure that every Kentucky worker who goes to work comes home safely to his or her loved ones, and we will continue to promote safe and healthy workplaces for all Kentuckians.

David A. Dickerson is acting secretary of the Kentucky Labor Cabinet.