Home office workers need guidance even if OSHA doesn’t require inspections

OSHA opens can of worms with home office debate

Even though federal safety officials hastily backed down from their statement that home office workers were subject to the same safety regulations as any other employee, there still are many questions left unanswered about how occupational health professionals should intervene. The feds may not require inspections of home offices, but that does not mean you have no role to play in the safety of telecommuters.

To the contrary, say some experts in occupational health and telecommuting, an occupational health professional can play a valuable role in establishing safety and health guidelines that protect the worker from injury and insulate the employer from liability. Despite the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s current stance, it still is possible for employers to require home inspections as a condition of telecommuting. Occupational health providers may want to discourage that practice because it can be counterproductive, some say.

Home office workers can be exposed to many of the same hazards found in a traditional workplace, says William Patterson, MD, FACOEM, MPH, chair of the Medical Policy Board at Occupational Health and Rehabilitation in Wilmington, MA. The role of the occupational health professional may be different with telecommuters than with employees in the workplace, he says, but there still is work to be done.

"I would favor having companies educate employees about how to be safe in their homes," he says. "I think you will get into a lot of difficulty, unnecessarily, if you start talking about going into people’s homes the same way you would in an employer’s office or factory setting. But that does not mean you have to forego any safety and health efforts with these people working at home."

There are at least 10 million telecommuters in the United States, and maybe as many as 20 million, according to the 100,000-member American Telecommuting Association, an advocacy group for telecommuters in Washington, DC. Those numbers include employees working from home at least two days a week, using computer e-mail, fax, and other methods to stay in touch. Independent contractors and vendors are not included, and they generally are not subject to the company’s safety regulations in their own workplaces.

Home offices are nothing new, and occupational health professionals have considered the health and safety implications for years. The issue came to a rapid boil, however, when OSHA issued a compliance advisory saying that home offices were subject to all the health and safety regulations applicable in the employer’s main workplace.

Inquiry letter started the controversy

A credit services company wrote to OSHA in August 1997 to ask for clarification of how OSHA rules applied to telecommuters and received a reply Nov. 15, 1999. The letter from Richard Fairfax, director of the directorate of compliance programs with OSHA, was firm in stating that employers have an obligation to ensure the home office is a safe work environment.

The letter did make certain allowances for the nature of the home office, however. Fairfax stated in the letter that OSHA would not expect a home office to have two means of egress from a fire as would be required in a workplace setting, for instance, unless the work done in the home created a heightened risk of fire. One of the most contentious issues involved inspections of the home office, and the Fairfax letter fueled that fire by saying the employer may need to conduct periodic safety checks. OSHA inspectors also may visit, he wrote, but such inspections were called unlikely.

The compliance directive created a huge controversy, with the public and many employers fixating on the exaggerated idea of OSHA inspectors storming into employees’ homes to look for frayed extension cords, missing fire extinguishers, and house cats sleeping in the hallway where workers could trip and fall.

Within a few weeks, Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman officially rescinded the letter. "The letter has caused widespread confusion and unintended consequences for others," Herman said. "Therefore, OSHA is withdrawing the letter today."

Soon after, Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health Charles Jeffress underscored OSHA’s position before the House subcommittee, saying that OSHA has no intention of inspecting home offices. He did, however, draw an important distinction between home offices and other types of work performed at home. (See story, p. 28, for more on Jeffress’ comments.)

Patterson says the true occupational health issues were overshadowed by the controversy over OSHA and employer representatives entering a private home. Some telecommuting advocates argue that the home office should be considered a private space beyond the reach of safety inspections, but Patterson says that attitude may not serve the worker well in the long run. He does not advocate home office inspections necessarily, but he says there are legitimate concerns.

"You have to ask who is benefiting from the home office arrangement, and it’s really both the employer and the employee benefiting," he says. "So you can’t just say it’s all to the employee’s benefit and that absolves the employer of liability. If a person trips on a cord at home and falls, is that a workers’ comp injury? The answer is yes, it could be."

In that regard, the home office is no different from a conventional workplace in terms of the employer’s obligations and why the employee should be willing to comply with safety directives, he says.

"I think it’s reasonable for society to address this problem," Patterson says. "OSHA made a mistake in claiming such a broad regulatory authority, and it properly backed off. But now I think a lot of anti-OSHA critics are using this as a club to beat OSHA with."

In particular, Patterson says, opponents of the hotly debated ergonomic standard proposal are seizing the current controversy as a way to criticize OSHA. Ergonomics would be a major component of any home office safety initiative, so opponents of the proposed ergonomics standard are pointing to the home office debacle as an example of how intrusive OSHA would be if the standard were enacted.

An expert on telecommuting tells Occupational Health Management that occupational health providers should learn from OSHA’s mistake and take a more positive approach with ensuring the safety and health of home office workers.

As general manager of US West Extended Workplace Solutions in Denver, Jim Miller oversees the home office work of US West employees and also provides consulting services to other companies with home office workers. US West has nearly 20,000 employees working at home, out of a total 59,000.

"The reason the OSHA statement ruffled so many feathers is that it was a statement of rules made for a manufacturing environment 30 years ago," Miller says. "And the biggest problem with the original OSHA approach was that it was filled with shalt nots.’ If you just turn that around, as those of us who are parents have learned to do over time, you get along a lot better."

In other words, Miller says occupational health professionals and employers should approach home office workers with the benefits of providing a safe work environment rather than a stern declaration that you will not tolerate a messy home office.

Patterson agrees, saying the first principle of preventing injuries in the workplace is joint labor/management attention to the issue. "That principle also applies to the home office, so you start with a labor/management dialogue and see what sort of interventions would make sense for that particular workplace," he says. "Your approach is important. The way that OSHA appeared, intentionally or unintentionally, is not the right way. They didn’t say let’s talk about it.’ They just made a statement."

OSHA’s backtracking was welcomed by Gail Martin, director of the International Telework Association and Council in Washington, DC. Martin’s group represents telecommuters, and she says her members were wholeheartedly against the idea of OSHA and occupational health providers controlling their home offices.

"Hallelujah!" Martin responded on the day Jeffress announced OSHA’s new position. "This is absolutely wonderful. Our position has always been that you make a safe environment through education and training. It’s perfectly fine to address safety in the home office, but it should not be by having people go into the home and inspect it. You have to trust."

Telecommuters reacted so strongly to the original OSHA position because it posed a threat to their privacy, she says. Americans tend to be very protective of their personal life outside of work, and a home office does not change that, she adds.

"You may be very organized in your work life, an ideal worker, but if a supervisor comes in to your home and sees a lifestyle different from his, my fear is that could influence how the worker is judged," Martin says. "It’s against the law to ask about your marriage and kids, those kinds of things, but you expose all of that when a supervisor visits your home. You’re crossing that sacred line of workplace and home division."

[For more information, contact:

• William Patterson, Occupational Health and Rehabilitation, 66B Concorde St., Wilmington, MA 01887. Telephone: (978) 657-3826.

• Jim Miller, US West Extended Workplace Solutions, 1801 California, Suite 5200, Denver, CO 80202. Telephone: (303) 896-7623.

• Gail Martin, International Telework Association and Council, 204 E St. N.E., Washington, DC 20002. Telephone: (202) 547-6157.]