Osha Backs Down

After an uproar over an OSHA advisory, asserting federal workplace safety rules extend to employees homes, the agency has reversed itself, declaring it will not hold employers responsible for conditions in workers’ home offices.

However, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration will enforce safey regulations for other kinds of work done at home, particularly piecework for manufacturers, an agency official said.

In a separate action, the agency announced Thursday it is extending for an additional 30 days the public comment period on controversial workplace ergonomic standards.

An estimated 19.6 million Americans work at home at least one day a month, up from 4 million in 1990.

The OSHA policy toward telecommuters is described in testimony prepared for a Senate hearing but not yet delivered.

In the written testimony, Assistant Labor Secretary Charles Jeffress, who oversees OSHA, said the agency will not inspect home office, does not expect employers to inspect them and will not hold employers responsible for work activities performed there.

“OSHA hold 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 said.

Labor Department spokesman Carl Fillichio said an official department directive will follow within 30 days.

OSHA provoked a storm over the issue with an interpretation letter issued to a Houston credit services company that asked for guidance on its responsibilities regarding office workers allowed to work at home.

OSHA asserted in that letter that employers are liable for “reasonably foreseeable hazards created by (workers) at-home employment” and suggested periodic inspections home work areas by company officials.

After business lobbying groups and Republican congressional leaders denounced the agency’s position, Labor Secretary Alexis Herman rescinded the letter but did not concede any errors in it at the time.

In his testimony, Jeffress acknowledges the letter “suggested OSHA policy where no such policy exists, and I regret the unintended consequences it caused.” He said the agency’s system for reviewing interpretations letters “failed to raise this issued to the appropriate level.”

The controversy over OSHA’ handling of home office work comes as businesses are attacking the agency for separate proposed ergonomic standards that would require employers to design work conditions to avoid injuries from repetitive strain, such as carpal tunnel syndrome suffered by date entry workers.

Extending the public comment period on ergonomic standards means regulations will be delayed another 30 days.

Senator Mike Enzi (R-Wyo) chairman Senate Subcommittee on Employment Safety and training, said he is “pleased with the direction Mr. Jeffress’ testimony took” on regulating home offices.

Jennifer Krese, the director of employment policy for the National Association of Manufacturers said “the words look good on paper” but she wanted to reserve judgment until after detailed questioning at a congressional hearing.

Peg Seminario, health and safety director for the AFL-CIO, said the union was “generally ok” with the Labor Department’s new position.

By Mike Dorning

Published: Friday January 28, 2000