November 21, 2018 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 1Comment

Eleanor Klibanoff with the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting (KyCIR) and Jeff Young with Ohio Valley ReSource delve deep into the way that Kentucky OSHA (KY OSH) investigates work-related fatalities. What they found is appalling.

Their multi-part series, Fatal Flaws: How Kentucky Is Failing Its Workers, relies in part on the reporters’ review of records obtained from KY OSH. Klibanoff and colleagues obtained case files for 47 worker fatalities that occurred in Kentucky from October 2015 through September 2017. They’ve posted information about each of the cases, including the worker’s name, the employer, and the immediate cause of the fatality. For example:

One of the 47 worker fatalities included in the Fatal Flaws database.

The reporters’ analysis found that in nearly every case, KY OSHA’s investigation was grossly inadequate. Co-workers who witnessed the incident were not interviewed, the deceased worker was blamed, the cause of the fatality not determined, and penalties meant to serve as a deterrent were slashed.

After reading the series, I say it’s a stretch to call the agency’s response to worker deaths “fatality investigations.”

The reporters interviewed family members whose loved ones are the people behind the statistics. Their stories illustrate the deep pain felt by families when a spouse, parent, or child is killed at work. Their stories also reveal how their pain is compounded when the government safety agency fails to do its job.

Lisa Hobbs’ husband, Pius “Gene” Hobbs, 62, worked for the Meade County, KY Road Department. He was fatally injured in December 2016 when he was struck by a dump truck. Klibanoff writes:

The only eyewitness to the December 2016 incident, a bystander named Greg Turner, said that he didn’t hear a backup beeper on the truck as it reversed. Maybe Hobbs hadn’t either. At the scene, state police concurred: they couldn’t hear the backup beeper.

Later that day, after the employees had gone home and the Vine Grove street was quiet, Kentucky’s occupational safety inspector showed up. He conducted his own test.

Standing next to the truck, with no other equipment running in the area, the inspector said he could hear the backup beeper just fine. Though those conditions bore little resemblance to the scene of Hobbs’ death hours earlier, the inspector ruled the Meade County Road Department had done nothing wrong.

That’s the investigation?  Listening for a back-up alarm?

A work-related death like Hobbs’ demands more than simply asking whether the truck’s back-up alarm was working. A beep-beep-beep is not a safety program.  An effective safety program anticipates the hazards of trucks and people operating in very close proximity. It has systems in place to eliminate that hazard–systems designed with worker input. A beep-beep-beep should be near the bottom of the list as the means to prevent an incident such as Mr. Hobbs’.

Klibanoff writes:

What Lisa Hobbs wanted was for the state to do its job, and hold her husband’s employer to account. “That’s who we were relying on to set everything straight, but that didn’t happen,” Hobbs said. “You’d think [KY OSH] knows what they’re doing, but they don’t have a clue.”

Fatal Flaws: How Kentucky Is Failing Its Workers weaves in excerpts from an audit of KY OSHA conducted by federal OSHA. The audit was released in early August 2018. The auditors’ findings reinforce what Klibanoff and colleagues report.

Federal OSHA’s audit notes:

“In 11 of the 44 files reviewed, hazards were identified that were not addressed, including several that are related to the cause of accidents. There was no documentation in the files to support the violations of the identified standards were considered. The result is workers are continuously exposed to serious hazards that remain unabated.”

I suspect that last sentence —“workers are continuously exposed to serious hazards”—provoked a painful response from Lisa Hobbs and the other family members who are profiled in Fatal Flaws.

KY OSH is failing its duty to hold employers accountable. It is failing to assemble valuable information from fatal injury incidents to prevent others. Why is the question also explored by the reporters.

I’ll write about that in Friday’s post.


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