Dozens of salon owners andbeauticians rallied outside California State Capitol demanding thatGovernor Newsom relax closures allowing them to return to work(Photo: Jason Doiy/ALM)

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With most states in the nation either opening up completely orregion by region, questions have arisen about workplacesafety requirements in the wake of COVID-19. TheOccupational Safety and Health Administration believes new rulesaren't needed. The AFL-CIO thinks differently.

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Politico reports the AFL-CIO asked the U.S.Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., to force OSHA to issuemandatory workplace safety rules. "It's truly a sad day inAmerica when working people must sue the organization tasked withprotecting our health and safety," said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. "Butwe've been left no choice. Millions are infected and nearly 90,000have died, so it's beyond urgent that action is taken to protectworkers who risk our lives daily to respond to this public healthemergency. If the Trump administration refuses to act, we mustcompel them to."

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Related: Businesses could face liability if employees testpositive for coronavirus

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"Because of the enforcement authorities already available to itand the fluid nature of this health crisis, OSHA does not believethat a new regulation, or standard, is appropriate at this time,"an OSHA spokesperson said.

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According to a Labor Department spokesperson, OSHA hasreceived 3,990 COVID-19-related complaints, manyconcerning a lack of personal protective equipment. As of May 18,the agency had only opened 310 coronavirus-relatedinspections. Additionally, some 2,694 of those complaints have beenclosed, but OSHA has not issued a single COVID-19 relatedcitation.

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Watchdog group Accountable.U.S. says OSHA inspections havedecreased from 217 per day to 60 on average since the White Housedeclared COVID-19 a national emergency on March 13.

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For its part, OSHA says it has investigated every complaint andhas "responded to double the number of inquiries related toCOVIDm-19 as compared to all inquiries handled in March and Aprilof the previous year," according to a spokesperson.

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The agency "will enforce workplace protectionrequirements where appropriate," the spokesperson said.

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OSHA's Interim Enforcement Response Planfor COVID-19 says "formal complaints alleging unprotectedexposures to COVID-19 for workers with a high/very high risk oftransmission, such as a fatality that is potentially related toexposures to confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients whileperforming aerosol-generating procedures without adequate PPE in ahospital, may warrant an on-site inspection."

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The plan goes on to state, "All other formal complaints allegingSARS-CoV-2 exposure, where employees are engaged in medium or lowerexposure risk tasks (e.g., billing clerks), will notnormally result in an on-site inspection." Instead, OSHAwill utilize a "non-formal" procedure, notifying employers byphone, email, or letter.

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Former OSHA officials have criticized the agency's approach tothe pandemic. "OSHA is essentially sitting back andsaying, 'We can't do anything.' It's really appalling to me,"saidDavid Michaels, who was OSHA chief during the Obamaadministration. Another Obama administration policy adviser, DebbieBerkowitz, was even more blunt. "That is not enforcement.That is nothing," she said.

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The AFL-CIO isn't alone in applying pressure toOSHA. The coronavirus stimulus bill passed last week byHouse Democrats would require the agency to issue mandatory safetyrules for employers, as well as mandatory rules for futureoutbreaks.

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Richard Binder

Richard Binder, based in New York, is part of the social media team at ALM. He is also a 2014 recipient of the ASPBE Award for Excellence in the Humorous/Fun Department.