TOPICS > Economy

Home Office Safety

January 17, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

MATTHEW BRACKMAN: Your Canadian order form is en route to you.

LEE HOCHBERG: Matthew Brackman is a Seattle graphic designer. He does traditional work, at an untraditional place.

MATTHEW BRACKMAN: This room doubles as our studio, band rehearsal spot every once in a while, and storage.

LEE HOCHBERG: He works on contact in this home office 30 hours a week. A provocative Halloween costume hangs on the wall. There’s a laundry basket on the floor, and electrical cords and phone wires hanging– not a problem for Brackman. Twenty-five million Americans enjoy the freedom that comes with working from home. That’s twice the number of a decade ago. About 11 million are telecommuters, working for somebody else, but staying in touch by telephone and computer. Another 14 million run their own businesses from a home office. But a recent ruling from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, raised questions about whether safety guidelines are needed, and fears about how they might be implemented.

MATTHEW BRACKMAN: There’s always guidelines you have to live with, but in my home, I get to make my own guidelines. That’s part of why I work at home, because I get to make my guidelines.

LEE HOCHBERG: The controversy started when a Texas company asked OSHA for rules on home-based employees. The agency’s response said, "All employers, including those which have entered into work-at-home agreements with employees, are responsible for complying with safety and health standards." That suggested to some, the specter of government auditors roaming home offices. House Majority Leader Dick Armey called it "an outrageous extension of the Washington bureaucracy." Senator Christopher Bond, chairman of the Senate Small Business Committee, said "it gives the federal government a license to stage an in-home invasion." The Labor Department quickly withdrew the OSHA letter, saying it was not a broad policy statement. But it emphasized employers are responsible for all employees’ working conditions. So what does all this mean? Is an employer responsible if an at-home employee trips and falls on a toy left in the middle of the hallway — or what about the employer of the Seattle writer who has this home office… ten rungs up a ladder to a loft with no fire escape?

RON JUDD: From our perspective, there are some things out there that are happening that are clearly unsafe.

LEE HOCHBERG: Labor leaders like Ron Judd of Seattle say OSHA should examine the employer’s role in home office safety. He says the virtual explosion in the number of at-home workers– some using power tools and chemicals in haphazard workspaces– will lead to injuries.

RON JUDD: If I’m producing a product for an employer on a shop floor, that employer is responsible for the safety and health of me as a worker. Now if that employer asks me to move that out into my garage and to produce the same product, wouldn’t the employer still have some sort of responsibility and accountability?

MATTHEW LYNCH, Washington Employers: The government has to realize that there are limits to what employers can do.

LEE HOCHBERG: Business leaders, like Matthew Lynch of the trade group Washington Employers, say they can’t assume liability for home offices over which they have limited control.

MATTHEW LYNCH: To be exposed to possible citations and fines by the federal government really is untenable.

LEE HOCHBERG: Offices like Brackman’s, for example, might trigger a rash of citations.

MATTHEW BRACKMAN: The thing that I’d be most hesitant about OSHA with would be the number of appliances I have plugged into an electrical outlet. I don’t have orthopedic chairs, I don’t have good lighting. There’s a lot of things I don’t have.

LEE HOCHBERG: You don’t have a chair.

MATTHEW BRACKMAN: I don’t have a chair, for that matter, right, exactly.

LEE HOCHBERG: Employers say rather than monitoring home offices, it would be easier for them to simply eliminate the employee option of telecommuting. That would be an unfortunate life shift for Bob Kerns of Portland, Oregon. Since his daughter Maggie was born 16 months ago, he’s happily brought his writing work from the Lycos Company home. He’s written Web pages while caring for his daughter. It’s a family-friendly example of the best of telecommuting.

BOB KERNS: I remember one time, I just went downstairs to take a little five-minute break, and my wife was giving Maggie a bath in the sink, and I pulled out the videotape camera and got some footage of her doing that, and then put it away, and five minutes later, I was back at work. So, I mean, those kinds of experiences are impossible in any conventional job.

LEE HOCHBERG: It’s not just at-home employees who fear losing their freedom, but the soaring number of people who actually run their own businesses from home. To stay close to her daughter, Mary Chalker operates a picture frame shop from her Seattle-area house. She can’t see why the government would be concerned about that.

MARY CHALKER: I don’t think they have the right to come in and regulate this operation, where it’s just me. If I had employees, I wouldn’t question that. I don’t think I need the government to protect me from myself.

LEE HOCHBERG: The Labor Department has called for a national dialogue to develop rules that make sense for the changing the 21st- century workplace, and will soon convene meetings with business and union leaders.