OSHA chief says most home workers not covered

Some of the confusion over federal regulation of home workers was cleared up recently by the head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Assistant Secretary for Occupa-tional Safety and Health Charles Jeffress. He spoke before the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Committee on Education and the Workforce in the House of Representatives.

Jeffress stressed that "the Department of Labor strongly supports telecommuting and telework." He also pointed out that the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 requires every employer to furnish to each of its employees "employment and a place of employment, which is free from recognized hazards."

"There is no provision in the law that excludes workplaces that are located in a home," Jeffress said. "However, as I will explain, OSHA holds employers responsible only for work activities in home workplaces other than home offices, for example, where hazardous materials, equipment, or work processes are provided or required to be used in an employee’s home."

Jeffress then made these statements:

• "We believe the OSH Act does not apply to an employee’s house or furnishings."

• "OSHA will not hold employers liable for work activities in employees’ home offices."

• "OSHA does not expect employers to inspect home offices."

• OSHA does not, and will not, inspect home offices."

However, Jeffress noted that employees in home offices still must be included in record keeping. Approximately 20% of employers, because of their size or industry classification, are required by the OSH Act to keep records of work-related injuries and illnesses.

Jeffress said those employers continue to be responsible for keeping such records, regardless of whether the injuries occur in the factory, on the road, in a home office, or elsewhere, as long as they are work-related.

OSHA classifies home offices separately

The OSHA chief drew a distinction between home offices and other types of home-based work. For home-based manufacturing operations, employers are responsible for hazardous materials, equipment, or work processes which they provide or require to be used in an employee’s home, Jeffress says. OSHA will only conduct inspections of hazardous home workplaces, such as home manufacturing, when OSHA receives a complaint or referral.

"Current OSHA rules are consistent with these principles, and we would expect future rules would be as well," he said. "The bottom line is, as it has always been, that OSHA will respect the privacy of the home and expects that employers will as well."

He noted that certain types of work at home can be dangerous, citing two examples from California:

1. In May 1998, 17 people were injured when fireworks being manufactured in a home exploded and destroyed the house.

2. Investigations in California last year revealed that at least a dozen Silicon Valley electronics manufacturers had assigned piece-work assembly to employees working in their homes. The operations commonly involved the use of lead solder and acid flux, and investigators found the home workers unprotected from hazards relating to the inhalation of soldering fumes.

Even so, inspections of home workplaces are exceedingly rare. Jeffress pointed out that OSHA performs approximately 35,000 inspections per year, but there have been only three cases when OSHA actually entered an employee’s home to conduct inspections:

1. Manns Bait Manufacturing (1978)

An employee of this Eufaula, AL, company worked at home casting lead-head jigs for fishing lures. Surrounded by her children, she poured and trimmed the jigs at the family’s kitchen table. She had no training in lead hazards, nor was she aware that exposure could result in miscarriage or birth defects, damage to the central nervous system, and delays in cognitive development for children. The inspection found the kitchen surfaces to be contaminated, placing the entire family at risk.

2. Capco Inc. (1985)

Employees of this Grand Junction, CO, company were removed from their jobs building electronic capacitors after an OSHA inspection in 1984 revealed high blood lead levels. Afterward, they began working for the company off-site at their homes.

In response to complaints from seven workers, OSHA inspected the homes of three employees in 1985. Compliance officers found workers using unguarded crimping machines, which could result in amputations. Workers were also handling adhesives without protective gloves, which could lead to dermatitis, liver damage, or cancer.

3. B & B Metal Processing (1991)

Employees at this Newton, WI, company processed scrap metals. In 1991, after an employee was admitted to the hospital to treat high blood levels of lead, based on a complaint, OSHA inspected and found lead exposure levels 100 times the permissible exposure level.

Because the company failed to provide shower rooms for workers or laundering facilities for their lead-contaminated clothing, workers were required to take contaminated clothing home. Workers encouraged OSHA to inspect their homes for possible contamination.