OSHA Rules Include At-Home Workers

An OSHA advisory concludes that companies who let employees work at home are responsible for health and safety violations at home.

If you are one of the 20 million adults who regularly work from home for an employer, a recent OSHA policy could effect your home work site situation.

Companies who let employees work at home are responsible for federal health and safety violations at the homes, according to the Labor Department.

An OSHA advisory letter outlining the requirements says that employers are responsible for ensuring an employee's home office has ergonomically correct furniture, proper lighting, ventilation system and emergency medical plans.

OSHA Administrator Charles N. Jeffress issued the advisory in mid-November 1999 in response to a letter from an employer in Texas requesting information on policies concerning employees working at home.

Although the advisory does not provide specific information, it says that when an employee works at home "the employer is responsible for correcting hazards of which it is aware, or should be aware."

The letter gives examples of the types of problems companies could be liable for, ranging from ergonomics injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, from improperly configured computer work stations, or fires caused by overloading home electrical circuits with office equipment.

OSHA officials noted that they do not conduct inspections of home-based workplaces the way they do employer work sites.

Likewise, OSHA is not requiring employers to routinely inspect the home work sites of their employees. However, if a work-related fatality occurred in a home-based workplace, OSHA said it would investigate.

The policy applies specifically to home work areas and not the entire home.

"An employer is responsible for ensuring that its employees have a safe and healthful workplace, not a safe and healthful home," the advisory letter said.

Many large companies already have written agreements or offer guidelines to telecommuting employees setting up home offices in recognition of this responsibility.

However, business groups said that the new OSHA interpretation places a greater burden on employers that could have a crippling effect on at-home work arrangements.

American Society of Safety Engineers President Frank Perry said the OSHA advisory is like opening up 'Pandora's Box,' especially where employers' insurance carriers are concerned.

"It will be interesting to see what this means for the insurance folks. Now underwriters would have to ask employers who permit employees to work at home if they provide protections for the employees' health and safety," said Perry.

Perry pointed out an interesting fact about the timing of the policy. With recent budgetary problems and a lack of staff, Perry believes OSHA may be taking on more than it can handle. "It seems like they are opening up a can of worms. It will become a low priority to inspect workplaces in the home with a lack of staff to do the inspections," said Perry

Secretary of Labor Alexis M. Herman agreed saying that although OSHA is responsible for inspecting worksites to reduce employee injuries and illness, the federal government has neither the desire nor the resources to investigate private homes in America.

"In the virtual workplace, where the door never closes, the rules are not very clear. We need a national dialogue to determine what rules and policies should be," said Herman.

Herman said the U. S. Department of Labor looks forward to opening up such a dialogue that would allow both employers and employees to determine the best way to ensure the safety and health of workers.

Perry said for now, ASSE is soliciting comments from its members regarding the policy and then it formally address OSHA on the matter.

"We have long supported OSHA and we try to give them a shoulder to lean on when they need it. After we solicit comments we will send a letter to Mr. Jeffress offering recommendations and comments from our members," said Perry.

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