The Department of Labor is debating whether to set rules designed to protect health care workers from exposure to AIDS and other blood-borne diseases.

If adopted, Labor Department standards would be the first such standards to have the force of law. Hospitals, home health agencies and other health facilities could face sanctions, including financial penalties, for noncompliance.

Previously, several groups, including the Federal Centers for Disease Control, have issued nonbinding recommendations seeking to prevent the transmission of acquired immune deficiency syndrome in the workplace.

"Right now, there's nobody to enforce these guidelines," said Jordan Barab, health and safety coordinator at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents roughly 300,000 health care workers. "All we're asking {the government} to do is make these mandatory," he said.

The Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is considering petitions from AFSCME and several other unions asking for an "emergency temporary standard" for employers to limit occupational exposure to blood-borne infections, primarily AIDS and hepatitis B. The petitions ask for mandatory safety precautions, such as wearing protective clothing such as gloves and gowns when workers are in direct contact with blood or bodily fluids.

While such standards primarily would affect health care workers, they could affect police officers, corrections officials and other workers who could come into contact with the AIDS virus.

The union petitions have drawn OSHA for the first time into the possibility of directly regulating the workplace not only for AIDS, but for infectious diseases in general. In the past, OSHA has regulated a range of other occupational hazards, ranging from toxic chemicals to construction scaffolding.

Although the agency rarely sets temporary standards, the unions pressing the petitions contend one is justified in this case to short-circuit the delays of OSHA's rule-making procedures, which have been criticized as being too cumbersome.

"This is the difference between two weeks and two-to-five years," said George Cohen, a Washington labor lawyer following the issue.

OSHA's staff has recommended that the agency deny the unions' petitions and initiate the formal rule-making process. A memo prepared this spring by Charles E. Adkins, director of health care standards programs for the agency, suggested that it would be difficult to meet the stiff standards of evidence needed to justify such an unusual order. Adkins said there was a strong chance an emergency standard would be successfully challenged in court.

However, a spokesman for OSHA chief John A. Pendergrass said this week that despite the recommendation, a number of options are under consideration.

The spokesman, Terry Mikelson, said Pendergrass has meet with union officials, industry executives and officials from other agencies to discuss the issue, and that a decision is expected in the next few weeks. "He is not leaning one way or the other," said Mikelson.

The department's deliberations are intensifying only a few weeks after public health officials reported three new cases in which health care workers were infected with the AIDS virus after coming into contact with the blood of an infected person. The cases were the first in which workers found to have contracted the virus after exposure to infected blood had not been accidentally pricked by hypodermic needles. A number of other workers have been infected by accidental needle pricks, including one reported yesterday at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Health System.

While health officials say the risk of being exposed to the AIDS virus this way remains extremely low, they have added that these incidents underscore the need for health care workers to meet guidelines proposed by the Centers for Disease Control and other agencies.

But the unions pressing the petitions contend that many health care facilities do not rigorously enforce these guidelines and sometimes do not provide necessary equipment and training to workers.

"Some hospitals are fine. Some are lousy," said AFSCME's Barab.

Linda Brooks, director of infection control for the American Hospital Association, said the AHA advised more than 5,400 member hospitals this week that they should follow existing safety precautions for all patients, not just those diagnosed with AIDS.

But Brooks said AHA officials told OSHA at a meeting on Monday that they oppose writing mandatory guidelines.