OSHA in the Home-Office

Anyone who's ever put an addition on a house knows what it's like to deal with a housing inspector: permits, rules, and that dreaded moment of inspection. Homeowners have long but grudgingly accepted that electrical systems, stairs, and other house basics should be regulated locally. We're all safer when everyone's housing meets standards of protection from potential hazards.

So why were so many Americans upset at the Clinton administration's attempt to bring federal workplace rules to bear on the safety of people whose employers let them work at home?

One out of 10 Americans now work at home, a healthy trend driven by computer advances, fax machines, the high price of office space, and a loathing for commuting. Home workplaces are the vanguard of the "new economy," tapping into an American trait for entrepreneurship. It's not a trend that should be curtailed lightly.

In many cases, homeworkers are "telecommuters" with just a computer, desk, chair, and file cabinets. But some employers are asking homeworkers to deal with heavy equipment or dangerous chemicals.

In a November advisory to one company by the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the federal government stated: "The employer is responsible for correcting hazards of which it is aware or should be aware." As an example, OSHA cited an employer's responsibility for stairs leading to a worker's basement office.

This week, the Clinton administration made a fast retreat from this stance in the face of criticism that home safety is not a federal concern and employers should not be snooping on workers' homes or paying for home repairs.

The White House has kept the issue alive by asking for a dialogue on home-office safety. Indeed, OSHA has done much to improve workplace safety, although many of its rules in the past have been ham-handed. It's had a long learning curve. But this new "home workplace" problem cuts a whole new curve.

The first issue should be whether local governments should expand their safety oversight, not whether OSHA should expand its reach. The national government could, for instance, provide a money incentive for local governments to meet national standards. But for now, let's keep Uncle Sam out of our homes.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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