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We reviewed thousands of pages of fatality investigations and dozens of federal reports to conclude that Kentucky is failing its workers in how it investigates deaths on the job.

With Permanent Leadership And No Legislation, Ky. Labor Cabinet Merger Unlikely

KY OSH inspection Cecil Hitchcock
Labor Cabinet
A KY OSH inspector at Hitchcock Logging in Saylersville, Ky., after a December 2015 fatality.

No legislators took up Labor Secretary David Dickerson’s call to merge his cabinet with the Public Protection Cabinet before the filing deadline this legislative session.

The merger proposal was presented as one possible antidote to the Labor Cabinet’s recent troubles. Dickerson spoke about the proposal during a committee hearing earlier this month.

Susan West, formerly the spokesperson for the Labor Cabinet, said she now worked only for the Public Protection Cabinet and could not answer questions about the proposed merger. She didn’t know who the Labor Cabinet's new spokesperson was.

Deputy Labor Secretary Michael Swansburg did not respond to request for comment.

The Labor Cabinet oversees worker safety, wage and hour regulations and workers’ compensation. The Public Protection Cabinet regulates professional licensing, financial institutions and other public-facing entities.

The merger proposal was presented as one possible antidote to the Labor Cabinet’s recent troubles. In August, a scathing federal audit found that Kentucky’s worker safety agency failed to meet or exceed federal standards, as is required by law.

The audit was first publicly revealed in an investigative series by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, the Ohio Valley ReSource and the Center for Public Integrity.

Federal OSHA found that Kentucky had failed to properly investigate nearly every worker fatality during a two-year period. Inspectors often didn’t interview witnesses, missed worker safety violations and improperly blamed employees for their own deaths.

As a result, federal OSHA has put Kentucky on a corrective action plan. Without improvement, the state could be facing greater federal intervention.

The Labor Cabinet has said it is addressing these shortcomings through additional training, salary increases and better equipment for its inspectors.

Earlier this month, Swansburg told the Senate Economic Development, Tourism, and Labor Committee the Labor Cabinet would benefit from being merged with a “regulatory-minded” cabinet like Public Protection.

“We have to help change the overall culture and get folks in a mindset of enforcement,” said Swansburg.

The proposal could still be considered in the legislature through last-minute amendments. Gov. Matt Bevin could also enact a merger administratively. But that appears increasingly unlikely after Bevin this week elevated the acting secretaries in both cabinets to permanent posts.

He installed Dickerson as Labor Cabinet Secretary and Gail Russell as Secretary of the Public Protection Cabinet.

Bevin’s office didn’t respond to request for comment.

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