Oh, Oh, OSHA!
In the first week of the new century the Occupational Safety and Health
Administration (OSHA) of the US Department of Labor released
a statement to the effect that OSHA's rules for traditional offices
applied to home offices of telecommuters. The new rules caused an enormous
outcry from a variety of sources, including shouts of outrage by some
of Congress. We were flooded with requests for interviews, to the extent
that, by the end of the first week of the year, we were almost one week
behind in our schedule; this even after OSHA rescinded its statement
following day. If you wish to see the gory details, you may
a copy of the content of the letter (it's about 70K).
Our responses to the various inquiries can be summarized as follows:
- What's new? For decades we have been telling clients
that it is important that teleworkers' home offices be kept at least as
free from hazards
as traditional offices. We have also generally recommended that there
be some form of written agreement between employer and teleworker
that specifies their respective responsibilities, including workplace
safety issues. In essence we have been saying: obey the spirit of
the OSHA regulations but don't get hung up on details (such as exit
signs) that apply to traditional workplaces but not to homes. All
of these points are covered in Managing
(Chapter 8 and Appendix B). OSHA subsequently dropped
their rules as they apply to homes.
- What accident risk? The vast majority of teleworkers
are very responsible and conscientious people. They can be relied upon
to keep their agreements,
including maintaining home offices in safe condition. Furthermore,
most teleworkers consider that teleworking is a privilege,
not a right.
Hence, they take special pains to ensure that they continue to earn
that privilege. We do not know of a single successful case
by a teleworker against an employer on the basis of work safety violations—and
we've been watching for such incidents since 1970! We have seen rumors
of one or two cases being brought over the last 30 years; occasional smoke but
Considering that there are now more than 21 million teleworkers in
the US alone, that brings the annual per capita risk of a workers'
compensation or related case down to less than 0.0000003% or thereabouts,
not something to cause much sleep loss by corporate attorneys or
In short, the OSHA flap was a lot like the Y2K situation: lots of heat,
and maybe some money spent, but not much there there. By the way,
on 27 January 2000, OSHA announced that it had no jurisdiction over
home offices—from total control to hands off in less than a month!
In our opinion, employers do have responsibility for informing employees
of the facts about safety in home offices, and for providing
assistance—including equipment, furniture, and aid in making any necessary wiring
modifications, as stated above—even though OSHA appears to have abdicated
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Tuesday January 3, 2012.