By Daniel Wiessner and Tom Hals
(Reuters) - U.S. Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia on Thursday defended his department's handling of workplace safety during the coronavirus pandemic, saying "the cop is on the beat" in response to union criticism about a lack of directives to protect workers.
In a letter to Richard Trumpka, president of the AFL-CIO federation of unions, Scalia said the workplace safety agency known as OSHA has been investigating thousands of complaints.
Scalia said OSHA, or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, is taking a two-pronged approach by providing industry-specific guidance that it could enforce if employers fail to adopt it.
OSHA is charged with setting and policing national working conditions.
Workplace safety is emerging as a major point of tension as businesses begin to reopen from mandatory lockdowns imposed to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 disease.
Workers have protested safety conditions at fast-food restaurants, hospitals and warehouses, while businesses have lobbied Congress for legal shields to protect them against lawsuits from employees and customers.
OSHA has come under increasing pressure to take a tougher approach.
The agency issued on Sunday new guidelines, such as spacing workers and implementing temperature checks, for meat-processing plants after many closed following COVID-19 outbreaks among their workers.
Unions and Democrats in Congress have been pressuring OSHA to issue emergency temporary standards that they have said would be easier to enforce than the guidance issued by OSHA, which they argue lacks teeth.
Scalia said employers, relying on OSHA'S flexible and tailored guidance, are already doing the very things the unions want to accomplish through an emergency standard.
"Employers are implementing measures to protect workers, in workplaces across the country," he wrote.
Scalia also rejected Trumpka's request that all employers be required to report COVID-19 infections, saying that doing so would "burden employers and overwhelm OSHA."
The agency in March eased the requirements for determining when an employer has to report an infected worker, a change businesses had pushed for because they said it was difficult to determine if an employee had become infected at work. Worker advocates have said the change could undermine a sick employee's access to workers compensation insurance.
(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Leslie Adler)