The news hit telecommuters where they lived—literally. Businesses that allow their employees to telecommute are responsible for their safety at home.

On Jan. 4, The Washington Post ran an article outlining a policy interpretation made by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to a business that requested advice on its telecommuters. OSHA stated that “All employers, including those which have entered into ‘work at home’ agreements with employees, are responsible for complying with the OSH Act and with safety and health standards.”

Businesses and industry watchers soundly criticized OSHA and suggested that its position would discourage companies from allowing their employees to work at home. In response, U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Alexis Herman withdrew the first statement on Jan. 5 and issued a second statement posted on OSHA’s Web site stating that she would soon host meetings with business and labor leaders to determine how OSHA’s rules should apply for telecommuters.

So, if you have employees that work at home, what are your responsibilities as their employer? Could government regulations either change the way you deal with them or persuade you to stop the practice altogether?

Or, as one consultant suggests, does OSHA have a role in the telecommuter’s office?

How it began
OSHA’s letter came in response to an August 1997 inquiry from CSC Credit Services after it requested information on the “employer’s obligation within the home work environment.” OSHA’s response, dated Nov. 15, 1999, and later posted to its Web site, alarmed many:
“The [Occupational Safety and Health Act] applies to work performed by an employee in any workplace within the United States, including a workplace located in the employee’s home,” OSHA said in its letter.

OSHA’s response also suggested that, in some cases, employers might have to visit employees’ homes “to reduce or eliminate any work-related safety or health problems they become aware of through on-site visits or other means.”

(A complete copy of the withdrawn letter and its interpretations can be found on OSHA’s Web site.)
Is OSHA overreaching its bounds, or do telecommuters deserve a certain level of enforced safety precautions in their homes? Would such a requirement devastate the telecommuting industry? Tell us what you think about the OSHA letter and its implications by posting a comment at the bottom of the page.
The potential effect on telecommuting
The International Telework Association & Council , a Washington D.C.-based, nonprofit organization that promotes telecommuting, estimates that the number of telecommuters grew to 19.6 million in 1999, up from 4 million in 1990. It also criticized OSHA’s interpretation, calling it an invasion of an employee’s privacy and saying it would “cripple” the spread of telecommuting.

“It would kill it,” said ITAC executive director Gail Martin. “They’re doing smokestack legislation and manufacturing legislation and applying it to the digital age.”

What’s most alarming is that OSHA’s policy interpretation, though withdrawn, is still based on existing policies and therefore enforceable, said Pat Cleary, vice president of human resources policies at the National Association of Manufacturers.

“Where does it say that this is no longer the law?” Cleary said. “In fact, the labor department’s last statement said this employer ‘received the guidance he needs.’ Our concern is that at the end of the day, nothing has changed.”

Other agencies also expressed their concern as news of the policy interpretation was carried in the mainstream media.

Bruce Josten, the executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, was quoted in a press release as saying, “This runs counter to employers’ efforts to give workers greater flexibility and counter to the Administrator’s own emphasis on families.”

Last week, a spokeswoman for the Information Technology Association of America , a Washington D.C.-based IT analysis and public policy “think tank,” said the Department of Labor never collaborated with those who would be most affected by such regulations: businesses and telecommuters.

“We felt that if the Department of Labor was going to come down with such a decision that they should have spoken with the industries that use telecommuting the heaviest,” said ITAA spokeswoman, Tinabeth Burton. “They did not do that.”

What do businesses do now?
Though OSHA withdrew its letter, employers are still at a loss as to how OSHA regulations apply to telecommuters, said Gil Gordon, a Monmouth Junction, NJ, telecommuting consultant.

“An employer right now, for example, could not go to OSHA and say, ‘Give me a list of the requirements I must meet for telecommuters,’“ said Gordon. “That whole flap last week caused them to pull back from even appearing as if they accidentally had any regulations promoting it, and now they’re entering into this idea of studying it and a nationwide debate, all of which is fine.”

In the meantime, many companies are at a loss to determine if their telecommuting practices are sound or if they’re opening themselves to liability. If you’re a CIO, you should take steps to structure your telecommuting program, Martin said.

“We recommend a formal program that entails buy-in from the top down and bottom up,” she said.

Such an effort would include involving human resources, IT, facilities management, and finance. Workers and employers should agree on memorandums of understanding, which outline a worker’s responsibilities.

Workers should also be trained on how to maintain a safe home office, she said.

Who is responsible for the safety of telecommuters?
Despite the beliefs of some that government has no place in a telecommuter’s home, Gordon contends that businesses have a responsibility to their employees’ safety, no matter where they’re working.

”I do think that OSHA has a role here, in the sense that there are more and more people working away from the office in this fashion,” he said.

But Gordon added that common sense should prevail. If OSHA does issue solid guidelines on telecommuting, they will be minimal and, almost certainly, wouldn’t call for OSHA’s inspections of home offices.

“We’re not going to be concerned about whether a telecommuter’s child left a bar of soap on the shower floor;” he said. “There has to be a pretty clear relationship between the incident and what the person is being paid to do.”

One area where employers or employees may take an active role in ensuring safety is by providing proper furniture, especially for an employee spending at least three days a week at home.

“I think it’s a cheap kind of insurance to buy, and certainly if that employer feels that responsibility in the office for the same job, then the person doing the job away from the office shouldn’t be any less covered,” he said.

What OSHA should do
While no dates have been set yet by the Department of Labor to discuss a business’ responsibility to its telecommuting employees, Cleary said OSHA should make it clear that businesses can continue the practice.

“They should make a clear policy statement that for the casual telecommuter, the employer has no liability,” he said. “OSHA has no reach into the employee’s home.”

“I think what we have to do is take a very, very cautious approach,” Martin said. “They should take a thorough approach to the balance between all those reasons why telework is the new way to work and the ethics of privacy.”
Has OSHA’s policy interpretation forced you to take another look at how you work with employees who telecommute? What other issues does this raise? What is the best way to ensure that telecommuters are working in a safe environment? Post a comment below and tell us or send us an e-mail .