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Kentucky’s Gubernatorial Candidates Weigh In On Worker Safety

Lisa Hobbs wears a pin of her husband, Gene Hobbs, who was killed in a construction site accident (when and where)?
Lisa Hobbs wears a pin of her husband, Gene Hobbs, who was killed in a construction site accident (when and where)?

Like many of the other candidates for governor, Adam Edelen’s platform focuses on improving education and healthcare, fighting the opioid epidemic and bringing good jobs to Kentucky.

But on the campaign trail, the former state auditor has also been offering specific promises for one small agency: the Kentucky Occupational Safety and Health program.

“When we take a tragic situation and makes it worse, we've got to fundamentally rethink the nature of our government,” he recently told KyCIR. “Plainly, there needs to be a house cleaning at Kentucky OSHA."

Kentucky’s worker safety agency has come under fire after a scathing federal audit called into question the program’s ability to properly investigate deaths on the job. The audit was first publicly revealed in a seriesby the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, the Ohio Valley ReSource and the Center for Public Integrity.

Edelen has seen the state’s shortcomings in this arena first-hand. He is a former neighbor and close family friend of Gene and Lisa Hobbs, who were profiled inKyCIR’s November investigation.

Gene Hobbs was run over by a dump truck while working for the Meade County road department in 2016. The state inspector failed to interview the only eyewitness to the incident, didn’t properly test the truck’s backup beeper and missed worker safety violations, according to a federal report.

In the end, the state issued no violations to Meade County.

Edelen recalled attending Hobbs’ funeral and seeing his family struggling for answers from the state.

“I’ve lived amongst the disaster that happens when the government doesn’t do its job,” Edelen said. “I’ve seen the pain that that inflicts and it’s something that motivates me everyday.

“Frankly, the Hobbs’ are a major reason why I’m running for governor.”

The Edelen Plan: ‘Cleaning House’ At KY OSH

Edelen said fixing KY OSH would be on his “day one” list of priorities as governor. He said he would increase funding, hire more inspectors and create a culture where the state is looking to “bring justice” to the victims of workplace fatalities.

Hobbs was one of 44 workplace fatalities investigated by Kentucky’s worker safety agency during a two-year period. The federal audit found that the state had failed to properly investigate nearly all of those deaths on the job, by not interviewing eyewitnesses, ignoring safety violations and at times improperly blaming the employee for their own death.

Edelen said Kentucky is “chasing yesterday’s economy” by trying to entice businesses to Kentucky through deregulation. He said demanding high standards for worker safety would actually encourage the good jobs he hopes to bring to Kentucky.

Edelen also proposes “cleaning house” — not just appointing his own Labor Secretary, but replacing managers and supervisors who oversee Kentucky’s worker safety agency.

Edelen has called for the firing of a specific manager, Jermaine Greene, who oversaw the Hobbs investigation. Greene largely dismissed the case in an email to his supervisor, saying that Hobbs “zigged when he should have zagged.”

Lisa Hobbs obtained a copy of that email.

“It just tears you up,” Hobbs told KyCIR in June. “You don’t know what to do.”

“His flippant attitude towards the families is deeply personally disappointing and also reflects a major problem with the overall culture at Kentucky OSHA,” said Edelen.

Greene referred a request for comment to his supervisor; a spokesperson for the Labor Cabinet said no one would be commenting on statements from gubernatorial candidates.

Greene, like most at the state agency, is a merit employee. While the governor would be expected to appoint his own Labor Secretary and other non-merit positions, lower level employees don’t often come and go with new administrations.

But Edelen would push for Greene and other managers and supervisors to be fired for mishandling their jobs, which is allowed under the merit system.  

“It’s clear that we have become either too relaxed or haven’t made enough investment in making sure that Kentucky’s workplaces are safe,” Edelen said.

Other Candidates Agree Worker Safety Is Priority

KyCIR spoke with six of the eight gubernatorial candidates, all of whom agreed that worker safety was a priority. Republican candidate William Woods and a spokesperson for Gov. Matt Bevin did not respond to interview requests.

But the candidates, Democrats and Republicans vying to replace Bevin in November, disagreed on where the root of the problems lies — and how to fix it.

Attorney General Andy Beshear, a Democrat from Louisville, said the problem facing Kentucky’s worker safety agency is it’s leader.

“Kentucky OSHA stopped doing its job when Governor Bevin took over and set a culture of allowing companies to put profits over the lives of their workers,” he said.

Kentucky received critical federal audits of its worker safety plan even under Gov. Steve Beshear, Bevin’s predecessor — and Andy Beshear’s father. But the tone and tenor of the criticism has escalated. Last year’s audit led the federal government to put Kentucky’s worker safety agency on a corrective action plan.

Beshear said his plans would including reinstating the OSHA Standards Board that Bevin eliminated through executive order and ensuring the state has enough worker safety inspectors that are paid adequately.

Beshear said he would increase funding for the Labor Cabinet if necessary, but said his experience leading the Attorney General’s office through a period of budget cuts has shown him that, under the right leadership, agencies can often do good work with less funding.  

“We’d love more funding in every area,” he said. “But even with less, it’s about setting a vision, it’s about leadership, it’s about motivating the folks that work for you.”

House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, a Democrat from Sandy Hook, said he is a strong supporter of organized labor. He said he wants to build Kentucky’s worker safety capacity through better communication and collaboration between businesses, the workforce and the Labor Cabinet.

He has proposed legislation to restore the OSHA Standards Board, which is now before the House Licensing, Occupations, & Administrative Regulation committee.

Democrat Geoff Young of Lexington told KyCIR he is pro-union and against fine reductions for companies with safety violations. Young also said he would reduce the role of corporate lobbyists in government.

All the Democratic candidates said the Labor Cabinet would be best led by a union member.

State Rep. Robert Goforth, a Republican from East Bernstadt, said he has first-hand experience with worker safety issues. He was injured while working in a factory as a young man, which led him to go back to school and become a pharmacist.

Goforth said he stands apart from his party on many labor issues. He opposes a 2017 right-to-work law that forbids unions from requiring membership as a condition of

employment. He voted against House Bill 135, which would prohibit public agencies from requiring that contractors use union workers for public projects. That bill has passed the House and Senate and awaits the governor's signature.

“Diluting workplace safety standards and abolishing certain regulatory boards is worrisome at best,” Goforth said. "It's scary and maddening to me why we would want to turn back the clock on worker safety in Kentucky.”

Like the Democratic candidates, Goforth opposes a recent proposalto merge the Labor Cabinet with the Public Protection Cabinet. He said he would consider anyone with labor or management experience for the role of Labor Secretary.

Ike Lawrence, who works in real estate in Lexington and is running as a Republican, wasn’t familiar with the issues facing Kentucky’s worker safety agency before he was contacted for this story. But after reviewing the KyCIR investigation, he said it was “bothersome” that companies aren’t being held to account by the state.

He said worker safety was a top priority and proposed publicly shaming companies that have violations.

“I’m free market oriented,” he said. “But you need to have a government to protect the people, so the free market can work.”

Disclosure: Adam Edelen's running mate, Gill Holland, is a member of Louisville Public Media's board of directors. Per LPM policy, he is on leave from the board for the entirety of the campaign. LPM is KyCIR’s parent company.

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

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