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Groups push Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to issue COVID-19 workplace safety rules

Allison Abel, a server at Cookhouse in Bolton Hill, sets a table in July. Labor unions and environmental groups are calling on Gov. Larry Hogan to issue rules to protect workers during the pandemic.
Allison Abel, a server at Cookhouse in Bolton Hill, sets a table in July. Labor unions and environmental groups are calling on Gov. Larry Hogan to issue rules to protect workers during the pandemic. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

Labor and environmental organizations are pushing for new workplace protections in Maryland, saying current state rules aren’t adequate to keep workers safe in the coronavirus pandemic.

The groups want Gov. Larry Hogan to issue an executive order requiring the state labor department’s occupational safety program to adopt new regulations for businesses in the pandemic. In a statement issued Wednesday, the groups said Hogan has ignored their previous calls for pandemic workplace safeguards.

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The Maryland State and District of Columbia AFL-CIO asked Hogan in May to issue what’s known as an “emergency temporary standard” — new safety regulations to protect employees from exposure to the coronavirus, such as requiring distancing and masks.

“We’ve had no response,” state and D.C. AFL-CIO President Donna S. Edwards said Wednesday.

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Labor unions nationwide have pressed for an emergency temporary standard for COVID-19 amid a lack of enforcement by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, while industry groups have opposed new regulations.

A spokeswoman for Hogan, a Republican, said an emergency temporary standard is not needed because the governor’s pandemic executive orders give local health officials the authority to shut down unsafe facilities.

“Our highest priority remains keeping Marylanders safe,” Hogan spokeswoman Shareese Churchill said in a statement.

State officials say local health departments are handling complaints about mask-wearing, social distancing and occupancy levels while Maryland Occupational Safety and Health (MOSH) is investigating complaints about issues including PPE and sanitizing.

A dozen organizations have signed the latest request to Hogan. The groups say an emergency standard “would squarely address the risks of COVID-19 and provide MOSH with clear authority to act.”

They said more than a dozen other governors “have taken action to protect workers” in the pandemic.

“There is already ample evidence of the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on the health of those essential workers who have never stopped working,” they wrote in their letter this month. “Further, Black and Latinx workers, and other workers of color, in the state of Maryland are more likely to be in frontline jobs and these communities have disproportionate rates of illness and death related to COVID-19.”

Edwards said workers’ concerns range from problems getting PPE to lack of notification about possible exposure and an absence written COVID-19 standards at workplaces. In its May letter, the state AFL-CIO asked Hogan to put into place rules that would require employers to write COVID exposure control plans and address social distancing, masks, worksite cleaning and other issues.

The Maryland Smart on Pesticides Coalition’s Agriculture Worker Protection Workgroup also wrote to state officials this summer asking for new safety standards.

Tony Corbo, a lobbyist with Food & Water Watch, which is one of the groups pressing for new standards in Maryland, said meatpacking and agricultural workers are in conditions where the virus “can spread very easily.”

“They’re feeding the rest of us and yet we’re taking them for granted,” Corbo said.

In July, Virginia became the first state to adopt workplace safety regulations specific to the coronavirus. The rules address PPE, social distancing, hand-washing and cleaning of surfaces. They require employers develop procedures for workers to report symptoms, and to notify workers of possible exposure, among other mandates.

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