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Interview with New L&I Director Joel Sacks

Editor’s note: We asked the Department of Labor & Industry’s new director Joel Sacks to answer a few questions for this newsletter so that you could get to know him and his goals for the department. We thank him for taking the time to meet with a group of AGC leaders in January and to help AGC members get to know him and his goals.

Joel Sacks: Thank you for inviting me to be featured in your newsletter. I enjoyed meeting with AGC members in January and look forward to continuing L&I’s partnership with AGC.

AGC: What is your background?

JS: For the last seven and a half years I worked at the Washington State Employment width=200Security Department most recently as deputy commissioner. Before that I was deputy director of field services at Labor & Industries so this is my second time at L&I. It’s an honor to return as director of L&I. I can’t think of anything more important than preventing workers from injury and helping them heal and return to work if they are injured.

I first moved to Olympia from Washington D.C. to work at L&I in 1998. Back in the other Washington I worked for OSHA at the U.S. Department of Labor for four years. I also worked for the city of New York so I have experience at the federal state and local levels. I have a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in public administration. My wife and I live in Olympia with our two daughters.

AGC: How can AGC and the department work together to improve jobsite safety?

JS: I appreciate the partnership that exists between L&I and AGC and look forward to continuing our long-standing participation with AGC and others on the Construction Advisory Committee which was formed in 1986. We also plan to continue attending AGC safety forum meetings.

We welcome your participation in our projects too. For instance this year we plan to develop new construction-focused pages on the L&I website and we will need your input to decide what topics and training tools are most needed based on the needs of your industry.

We would also like to offer articles for your newsletter to highlight particular hazards or safety issues that would be important to your members.

AGC: More specifically how can L&I and the construction industry work together to improve the outcomes for injured workers restricted by their injuries from returning to their trades?

JS: I’m glad you asked about this because it is such an important and challenging issue.

I know it can be hard to recover and return to construction work after an injury. That is why preventing injuries with a solid safety program is so important.

We also know that keeping a worker in a job after an injury is important to the worker’s recovery. Being able to return to work at an appropriate light-duty or transitional job speeds the injured worker’s recovery and can reduce disability. It also helps employers hold down the cost of time-loss claims and ultimately workers’ comp premiums for you and others in your industry.

One of the biggest things at L&I right now is our Stay at Work Program. It offers employers financial incentives for providing light-duty jobs for their injured workers. I hope everyone reading this article today will go to and learn more about this program.

We also encourage employers and their injured workers to file a report of accident electronically at which speeds claim processing including the opportunity for employers to consider return-to-work options they might have available for the worker.

The industry can also help by developing alternative jobs for workers who are ready to return to work but can’t go back to their trade. L&I’s Preferred Worker Program offers financial incentives to hire qualified injured workers who are unable to return to their employer of injury.

Finally stay in touch with your injured workers while they recover and consider using them in a new capacity. It lets them know they are still valued in the workplace which can be a powerful motivator.

AGC: How do you measure success for your CSHOs (Compliance Safety & Health Officers)?

JS: When our Compliance Safety and Health Officers finish an inspection we want the jobsite to be safer for the workers and the employer to understand the requirements and how to abate hazards. We expect our compliance staff to be knowledgeable about the industry courteous and professional during inspections. An important component of our CSHO’s interaction with employers is to give them advice and support to help them abate hazards and come into compliance.

Last year we contracted with an independent customer research firm to survey employers and workers who have participated in a safety and health inspection in the past 12 months. I was pleased to learn that 70% of employer reps and 74% of worker reps believe that their worksite is safer as a result of the inspection.

The survey also found that more than 8 out of 10 employers said they had a good overall experience with their workplace inspection and nearly 9 out of 10 said their experience dealing with the inspector was good.

AGC: How would you describe a good balance of compliance versus consultative efforts?

JS: We continuously strive to find the right mix of consultation and compliance in our Division of Occupational Safety and Health. We’re required to do both but what you might not realize is more than half of L&I’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health is devoted to outreach education and consultation.

Helping small businesses to be successful in their efforts to create a safety culture is the focus of our consultation program. However we don’t initiate a consultation without the employer’s specific request so if you’d like a free and confidential safety and health or risk management consultation you can find expert assistance in your area at

Still we must remain focused on those few recalcitrant employers the repeat offenders and others who only seem to respond to compliance action. We know from a previous study of time-loss claims that taking enforcement action significantly reduces the likelihood of future claims.

AGC: What can be done to combat the underground economy?

JS: L&I takes combating the underground economy very seriously. Over the past few years we have realigned our construction compliance resources to focus even more on the underground economy. Last year during the summer months we conducted about two weekend sweeps per month. In addition our inspectors will visit jobsites in the evening on occasion based on their knowledge of where work is occurring. We share more information between L&I divisions and with other agencies such as the Department of Revenue and the Employment Security Department to help find people working in the underground economy and bring them into compliance. We invested in technology projects that make it easier than ever to find underground employers and share referral information.

AGC: Is there anything else that can be done?

JS: Yes I believe there is still more that we can do. While we have added and advertised our tip-reporting hotline (1-888-811-5974) and website we can work even more closely with the public and interested parties to identify and take action on underground activities.

We can triage our efforts to get auditors and other enforcement staff to the most egregious employers. If it is a repeat violator even criminal prosecution is an option. The point is this: for those who make a choice to not follow the rules I want to make it hard for them to do business in Washington State.

Many businesses we encounter however aren’t really bad actors but are just unclear on the rules. We can use letters phone-calls and other lighter-touch education and mild compliance options for new businesses or places where the employer appears willing to work with us. And we can do more education and outreach with the public to discourage use of unregistered contractors and other underground businesses and warn them of the risks.

Fortunately most employers want to do the right thing and we share a common goal to create a good business environment and that includes never letting up on our fight against the underground economy.

Thank you again for this opportunity to reach your members through the newsletter. Please visit our website at for more information about the topics discussed here.

Editor’s note: For more information about AGC programs referenced in this interview with Director Sacks click AGC Group Retro and AGC Safety Department.

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