OSHA quickly rescinded a controversial interpretive letter earlier this month that said a Texas employer could be held responsible for the safety of its telecommuting employees.
However, the agency's action concerned many businesses in the United States, which increasingly are allowing employees to work from home offices more often, according to CCH Inc., employment law and human resources information provider.
CCH recommends that, rather than fearing OSHA directives, companies can easily and inexpensively promote ergonomically friendly home offices.
"Businesses like offering telecommuting arrangements to employees because it costs them very little yet lets them provide a valuable benefit to employees," said Barbara Hickman, an attorney and CCH workplace law analyst. "The idea of government regulation in this area raised concern that this rather low-cost benefit was going to become a high-cost, administrative headache."
As a good business practice, CCH said companies should consider putting in place their own standards and guidelines to help employees ensure that their home office environments are safe.
"These steps don't have to be exhaustive, time consuming or expensive, they simply should reflect the concerns employers have for their employees whether they are working in the office or from home," said Hickman.
Checklists outlining standards for work area ergonomics and safety of the telecommuter's home office may include the following, according to CCH.
- It should be in a separate, private and secure area.
- Its should be equipped with ergonomically correct office furniture and equipment.
Work Area Safety
- Pathways should be clear and uncluttered and office furnishings and equipment should not interfere with a fast and easy ability to exit the area.
- A working smoke detector and fire extinguisher should be close by.
- Air quality and ventilation are good and adequate means of heating and cooling exist.
- Adequate electrical outlets should be available.
CCH said companies may want to have employees sign a safety certification statement as part of their telecommuting program.
The statement should indicate that the employee's home office does comply with the standards set forth in the company's telecommuting program.
"Most employees don't want to suffer back pain from sitting in the wrong kind of chair. But often times, they are busy with other things and have not really thought about how certain actions or inactions may trigger undesired consequences," said Hickman. "Providing guidelines to telecommuters and ensuring that they review them, allows companies to make certain that the fundamentals are in place to make telecommuting safe."