01/09/2015 04:08 EST | Updated 03/11/2015 05:59 EDT

NYC considers extending restaurant letter-grade inspection system to salons and barbershops

NEW YORK, N.Y. - Dirty nail clippers could get the same treatment as spoiled food under a proposal to expand New York City's restaurant letter-grade system to a new frontier: barbershops, hair salons and nail salons.

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., who was motivated in part by an infection his wife's aunt got from a pedicure, said he introduced the legislation this week to protect consumers and employees.

"Whether you go to a spa, a barber shop or a salon, the reality is that when they're using scrapers on your feet, when they're using nail files, when they're removing your cuticles, when the barbershop is doing your borders with razor blades, these are mini medical procedures," Diaz said in an interview in his office. "In many cases blood is drawn."

Under the city's restaurant grading system, first introduced in 2010, eateries must post their A, B or C prominently in the window. The grade is based on the number of infractions inspectors spot, such as vermin or food left out of the refrigerator.

City health officials said emergency room visits for food poisoning dropped after the system was adopted.

Salons and barbershops are regulated by the New York Department of State, which has just 27 inspectors for the entire state. The department's Division of Licensing Services received 180 complaints against "appearance enhancement establishments" in 2014, spokesman Laz Benitez said. The most common complaint was unlicensed operators.

Officials at the division had no comment on the proposed letter grade system.

While other cities such as Los Angeles assign A, B and C grades to restaurants, Diaz said he is unaware of any jurisdiction that does the same for salons and barbershops. "We believe that we're setting the stage for this concept to happen statewide and certainly nationwide," he said.

Because salons are licensed by the state, the bill introduced Wednesday by Diaz and Rafael Espinal, chairman of the City Council's consumer affairs committee, would call on the state to allow New York City to set up the grading system.

The officials also introduced a measure that would require salons to post a "customer's bill of rights" and another that would ask the state to expand its training programs for salon employees.

Diaz said the enhanced training would spur unlicensed beauticians to "come out of the shadows" and get licensed.

The cost of the training program, which would be run by the Division of Licensing Services, has not been determined.

The restaurant grades were imposed in 2010 over the objections of the New York State Restaurant Association, which complained the grades were unfair and often based on arbitrary rules like the placement of a sink for employee hand-washing.

There is no corresponding umbrella organization for salons and barbershops but rather a patchwork of different groups.

Rommy Pennella, executive director of the New York Hispanic Cosmetology Chamber of Commerce, said her group would support letter grades as long as the system is not too burdensome for small businesses.

"We don't want our businesses to close because they'll be flooded with so many regulations that they won't be able to afford it," she said.

No public hearing date has been set for the package of bills, and details of how the grades would be assigned have yet to be worked out. Diaz said criteria would include sterilization of equipment and basins.

"People don't bargain for a staph infection," he said. "They don't bargain for hepatitis."

Javiel Rodriguez, proprietor of the Knockout Barber Shop in the Castle Hill section of the Bronx, said he's confident his shop would score well but others might not.

"A lot of barbershops look like garbage cans," Rodriguez said. "It's a good idea to go there and give them a grade."

Customer Jose Santos said he pays attention to restaurant letter grades and would do the same for barbershops.

"If they're dirty, why would you walk in there and get a haircut?" he asked. "The cleaner the better."