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Want to Beat the Virus? Assure Safety at Work.

Updated: Oct 7, 2020

Governor Beshear batted well enough on workers' safety to get Kentucky onto an honor roll. The National Employment Law Project recently pointed to 14 states or cities that set new standards for worker safety in the pandemic.[1] Kentucky was among them.

But like Roger Maris’ home run record, the Kentucky ranking comes with an asterisk. Of the 14 states and cities, Kentucky was the only one that didn’t put an agency in charge of enforcement. The step was left out even though we have our own “OSH” agency instead of relying on the federal agency.

OSH means Occupational Safety and Health. It should mean—and assure—what it says. Sadly, the last couple of years have seen hard-hitting news reports that investigations of workplace injuries and deaths were weak here in Kentucky. Later federal reviews found improvement,[2] but it’s a work in progress.

States, businesses, and schools have been there and done that on fast reopening during the pandemic. They’re up against a strong and elusive foe in the coronavirus. By now it’s clear: the way to a strong economy is to beat the virus, not ignore it.

That’s why it’s so important that we protect people at work, including essential workers who can’t stay home. We protect them by setting standards, by investigating complaints, and by providing unemployment benefits when jobs are lost and return to work is unsafe — especially for vulnerable people who quit because unsafe conditions could cost them their health or even their life.

It’s easy enough for me. I’m approaching 70, so I’m in a vulnerable group. But I’m lucky—and privileged enough—to be working at home as I write. I quit going into the grocery store to shop, even during senior hour. Too many people too close, and too many without masks. I do curbside pickup instead.

Think about the workers there in the store all day. Or at other points in the food chain, like meat packing plants.

Recently, several of us wrote to Governor Beshear with praise for Kentucky’s pandemic safety standards and concrete suggestions for next steps. Our letter brought together data-minded watchdog Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, the Kentucky State AFL-CIO, and workers’ rights advocates here at the Kentucky Equal Justice Center. Our suggestions:

  • Publish and live by detailed standards for good cause to quit an unsafe job and still qualify for unemployment

  • Publish similar standards to make clear that workers on unemployment don’t have to accept an unsafe job or lose benefits for not taking it

  • Make an online complaint form on workplace safety and health easy to find

To give credit where it’s due, the Kentucky Labor Cabinet at our request in January did post an online workplace health and safety complaint form on its website. It’s the federal electronic form[3], but when you hit “send,” it comes right back to Kentucky. Sadly, law students searching for it not only didn’t find it online, they found language saying the agency would ignore electronic complaints as “unsigned.”

In May, we asked the Labor Cabinet for numbers about complaints. We learned that Kentucky had received 287 complaints on workplace safety from the feds since January 1. By contrast, Oregon OSHA put a complaint form “front and center”[4] on their website and has received thousands of complaints. We have asked that the Labor Cabinet take a similar front and center approach. We are happy to provide suggestions and examples.

Kentucky can do more to earn its place on the honor roll. We can take steps to lose the asterisk that keeps us from being among the pacesetters. Health and safety are at stake. Ultimately, economic recovery is at stake.

Several weeks have gone by without a response from the Governor or his administration. Fingers crossed that a good one is in the works.


[1] Berkowitz, Deborah, “Which States and Cities Have Adopted Comprehensive COVID Workers Safety Protections So Far.” National Employment Law Project. [2] 2018 Follow-up Federal Monitoring Evaluation Report. [3] [4]

Image (c) Spc. Hubert Delany

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