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As Neighboring States Raise Worker Safety Inspector Pay, Kentucky Lags Behind

"A KY OSH compliance officer inspects the worksite after a fatality at Kellie Poultry Service in Calhoun, KY on February 26, 2016.
Kentucky Labor Cabinet
"A KY OSH compliance officer inspects the worksite after a fatality at Kellie Poultry Service in Calhoun, KY on February 26, 2016.

For David Stumbo, it’s not hard to recruit students at Eastern Kentucky University into the occupational safety and health major.

“We just roll out those starting salaries,” said Stumbo.

Private companies like Amazon, Georgia Pacific and Marathon Petroleum recruit on campus, offering corporate safety jobs that start at more than $50,000 a year, he said. But when students ask him about working for the state, he’s honest.

“Paycheck to paycheck is not something you want to advocate,” said Stumbo, who worked for the state for 20 years before coming to teach at EKU.

Safety compliance officers with the Kentucky Occupational Safety and Health agency (KY OSH) start out earning between $29,000 and $38,500 a year, according to the Personnel Cabinet’s job description. A state salary database shows multiple employees earning about $30,500 a year.

That’s not competitive with the private sector. But KY OSH is also failing to keep pace with the public sector. Kentucky pays its entry-level safety compliance officers less than any of the surrounding states, according to a KyCIR review of salary data.

Kentucky has long blamed many of KY OSH’s shortcomings — too few inspections, missed health and safety violations, lengthy investigations — on high rates of staff turnover. While other states have raised their salaries recently to combat this issue, Kentucky’s starting salaries for safety inspectors have actually dropped since 2016, according to federal grant agreements.

And the state has long been aware that this is a problem. A 2013 federal Government Accountability Office survey showed only Puerto Rico paid its inspectors less than Kentucky.

Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee and Virginia, as well as other states across the region, offer higher starting salaries than KY OSH, and the gap only grows the longer employees stay on the job.

Federal OSHA is responsible for worker safety inspections in West Virginia, Ohio and Missouri. The Department of Labor did not provide salary data, but experts say federal OSHA typically pays employees more than state plans, like Kentucky’s, do.

This month, in a statement, Acting Labor Secretary David Dickerson acknowledged that salaries are the problem.

“[W]e are actively pursuing policies that will incentivize the performance of current [KY OSH] employees and allow us to recruit new top-rate candidates—including considering increases to baseline salaries.”

Staffers Say Low Pay Brings High Turnover

In the eyes of former employees, these low salaries have a very real impact on health and safety in Kentucky.

“They cannot keep investigators,” former Labor Cabinet deputy commissioner Mike Donta told KyCIR in October. “Because of that, sometimes things fall through the cracks and I’m afraid that’s a big part of what’s happening there with that division.”

Donta said high rates of staff turnover lead to problems like the ones outlined in Fatal Flaws, a recent investigation by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, the Ohio Valley ReSource and the Center for Public Integrity.

The investigation found that Kentucky had failed to properly investigate nearly every workplace fatality in a two-year period. In some cases, inspectors didn’t identify hazards, didn’t conduct or document interviews or blamed the deceased employee for his own death.

Earlier this month, Dickerson of the Labor Cabinet said in an op-ed published in the Herald-Leader that “a number of unacceptable issues” in the program are under internal review.

The most experienced inspectors conduct fatality investigations, according to Donta, but even they are hampered by the high rates of staff turnover.

“Each of these folks have a caseload of 20 or 30 cases they are working on at the same time,” said Donta. “Plus, they're having to train the new people. Anyone with experience has a new person by their side all the time. I’m not sure what it would take to fix it, except at least paying people enough that they'll stick around for a while.”

In its public response to annual federal audits, the state has also acknowledged that high rates of staff turnover has impacted the agency’s ability to do its job.

“Staff turnover remains the issue,” the agency wrote in its unsigned, official response to the 2017 federal audit. “Vacancies are filled as expeditiously as possible but compliance officer training, coupled with the ‘lag time’ before a compliance officer can perform solo inspections, make this issue a slow fix.”

A similar response was offered in 2015, and 2013, and 2011.

In 2009, the state wrote, “The Labor Cabinet would like to be in a position to hire additional compliance staff which could eventually help with the high caseload. Unfortunately, that is not a possibility in the current economic climate.”

A decade later, KY OSH has the same number of compliance officers and continues to face the same high rates of staff turnover.

Stumbo said he hates to encourage the “revolving door” of young compliance officers working for the state. But he tells his students, if they can find a way to work with the extremely low salaries — by living at home, or delaying student loans — they should go work for the state for a year or two. With that experience, they can “write their ticket” in the private sector.

In Kentucky, right now, Stumbo said, “essentially, the public sector is funding a great training program for the private sector.”

Other States Say Better Pay Makes A Difference

While Kentucky starts safety inspectors at about $30,500 a year, Virginia starts its safety compliance officers at nearly $36,000 a year, according to a state spokesperson.

Most of Illinois’ inspectors work for federal OSHA, but the state employs a few inspectors of its own. All but one of those state inspectors earn more than any of their KY OSH peers, according to an online state salary database.

The Indiana Department of Labor granted a raise in February 2017 to the state’s 58 safety inspectors, consultants, supervisors and industrial hygienists, as well as raised starting salaries for future employees. Their compliance officers start around $42,000 a year, an increase from $36,000.

“The increases are an incentive to recruit and retain IOSHA personnel,” IOSHA Director Tim Maley said in an emailed statement. “[O]ur safety professionals gain an experience level that is highly deep and broad given the intensity of exposure they receive in inspecting hundreds of workplace environments across every industry each year.”

Tennessee also recently raised starting salaries to $45,000 a year. After 12 months, compliance officers earn $50,000 a year, which is then raised to almost $57,000 a year later.

This is the agency’s second department-wide salary increase in as many years, according to Tennessee OSHA Administrator Steve Hawkins.

“You cannot have a successful program unless you have a qualified, well-compensated staff to do the work,” said Hawkins. “That is where the difference is made.”

Safety and health is a competitive job market, he said. Recent analysis of the private sector, as well as state and federal salaries, indicated to Hawkins that Tennessee wasn’t keeping up.

By consolidating and reorganizing some administrative jobs, the agency found funding to hire additional compliance officers and give raises to the existing staff.

Hawkins thinks it’s an investment that will quickly pay off.

“It takes us somewhere between 12 to 18 months to train a person to do this job,” said Hawkins. “If you're not able to keep a staff member at least five years, you hardly get any return on the time and money invested in training them up.”

According to salary data provided by TOSHA, 43 percent of employees have been working for the agency for more than 10 years. And 13 percent have been with TOSHA for more than 20 years.

In Kentucky in 2017, a quarter of all inspectors had less than one year experience. According to the federal audit, sixty-three percent of inspectors had less than three years experience.

Kentucky’s highest-paid safety compliance officer earns about $55,500 a year. That job classification requires five or more years of experience and involves supervising other inspectors, signing off on all inspections and training the constant churn of entry-level staffers.

In Tennessee, a job with equivalent requirements pays between $82,000 and $91,000 a year. Under the new salary structure, all TOSHA safety inspectors will be out-earning KY OSH’s highest paid employee by the end of their second year on the job.

“I would have a very difficult job attracting talent and running this agency at the salary levels that Kentucky OSHA is paying,” Hawkins said.

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