How the traditional guard rails of workplace safety fail rural LEOs

Why is it okay to skimp on basic safety equipment because we’re talking about a cop instead of a welder or warehouse worker?


We just celebrated Labor Day, a national holiday set aside since 1894 to honor the hard work and achievements of American workers and those who speak up for them. Let’s talk about the hard work of rural and small-town cops and ask: "Who speaks for them?"

One of the best parts about being a writer is learning from people smarter than I am, with experience in varied fields. A regular reader who is an industrial hygienist explained to me how the traditional guard rails of workplace safety and accountability, like OSHA and FLSA, fail far too many of our rural LEOs.

I learned that in a majority of states, there are no enforceable safety standards for law enforcement. The fire service has its own nationally recognized safety standards. Cops don’t.

in a majority of states, there are no enforceable safety standards for law enforcement. The fire service has its own nationally recognized safety standards. Cops don’t.
in a majority of states, there are no enforceable safety standards for law enforcement. The fire service has its own nationally recognized safety standards. Cops don’t. (Getty Images)

In fact, OSHA specifically exempts local and state law enforcement agencies, so unless a state version applies, every single officer is dependent on the goodwill of agency leadership, and local budgets for safety equipment, training and staffing.

That means officers in California, Washington, or Oregon are covered by state safety plans, while their neighbors in Idaho, Montana and Colorado are on their own per the federal version. Same with officers in Minnesota and its neighbor, North Dakota, New Mexico and Texas, and so on.

Urban officers even in states that default to federal OSHA standards are likely to have some measure of protection via local regulations, the requirements of national accreditation, or the influence of sheer numbers. Rural and small-town officers, though? Nope. If the department is small enough, it might even be exempt from paying overtime.  

Even where more rigorous state standards apply but officers work at will, a legitimate complaint can be ignored by employers with little effective recourse. Complaining employees risk termination, even when they’re right. (Fired employees tend to be described as “disgruntled” by defendant employers, chipping away at their credibility, and the potential of a whistleblower suit is ragged comfort when facing months or years of unemployability and character assassination.)

Because of these realities, I’ve talked with officers forced to accept explicit orders not to record overtime and others who have worked 30 days or longer without a single day off. Their only realistic option is to quit, especially when they can’t even get time off to interview for another job. Chicago’s staffing and overtime crisis are being addressed in part because large news sites focus on the issue; rural officers have no such outlet.

When failures are publicized (like these pictures of a worn, blown-out tire from a police car on a social media post) people are always outraged. Some are shocked. Still, some want to make excuses for the department or its leadership, and some want to put the responsibility back on the officer.

These tires came off an officer's patrol car. "It wasn't time to replace the tires," at beginning of shift, but it sure was by the middle when it blew.
These tires came off an officer's patrol car. "It wasn't time to replace the tires," at beginning of shift, but it sure was by the middle when it blew.

The shredded tire wasn’t just bad luck, though; the police chief had been advised (repeatedly) and texted back to the officer before his shift that “it wasn’t time to replace the tires,” no matter what their condition. The officer cannot assume responsibility when he doesn’t own the vehicle or have control of the funds to repair it. Again, what are his options besides insubordination?

When a grieving deputy messaged me to vent that his coworker died in a preventable wreck, there was absolutely nothing but conscience requiring his sheriff to have those brakes repaired. If the same tires or brakes were on a paint contractor’s truck, however, OSHA regulations would apply. If the contractor’s truck was wrecked and employees were injured or killed, an investigation would ensue, penalties would be assessed, and compensation for the employees would be forthcoming. If bereaved families filed wrongful death suits, the courts would allow them to go forward. 

Where then is the justice for slain officers, and their families who bring wrongful death suits citing staffing failures, voids where maintenance, equipment and training should be, and officers exhausted by back-to-back shifts? In case after case, existing law compels judges to dismiss these suits, sometimes citing the Professional Rescuer doctrine, a legalese version of "they knew what they signed up for."

Full disclosure here: I’m not a lawyer. I still think the judges in these cases are wrong. Officers do sign up to face down bad guys. No one signs up to drive a patrol rig with slick brakes or bald tires. No officer signs up to face gunfire without an appropriately-rated ballistic vest, much less no vest at all. Nevertheless, it happens.  

Why is it okay to skimp on basic safety equipment because we’re talking about a cop instead of a welder or warehouse worker? How is a patrol car without a cage different from a concrete mixer without a working backup bell, or a ballistic shield different from an appropriately-rated respirator and gloves in a chemical lab? Why does the disaster restoration contractor have to provide Tyvek suits for employees, but a deputy can spend days in a cartel grow without one?

The adverse effects of fatigue and overwork on officer safety and health are well established.  Truckers and bus drivers have mandatory rest periods. Why is that an alien concept in law enforcement?

In some places, a city carriage horse is mandated by law to have regular meals, rest periods and a five-week vacation each year. If we recognize that four-legged animals require some bedrock basics to stay strong and productive, why aren’t we extrapolating that wisdom to people whom we expect to make life and death decisions daily, for years?

If the law is the problem, then it’s time to rework that problematic bit of code. I get it – no one wants more federal oversight or more regulation. States can work around that by fixing the problem themselves. Twenty-two states have at least tried. It’s a start.

My wish is that some Labor Day in the near future, every state will require that all officers – no matter where they work – will have safe equipment, adequate staffing and dignified compensation in their work and in retirement. I’m tired of excuses and I’m tired of dead and disabled officers from foreseeable, preventable causes.

At the beginning of this essay, I asked “Who speaks for the rural and small-town cops?”

I do. I speak for them.

It’s a lot, but a girl can dream.

NEXT: Why rural officers need workplace protections

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