OSHA's war on home work

January 11, 2000

This is an edited excerpt of a Chicago Tribune editorial, which was published Friday.

FACING a storm of criticism, Labor Secretary Alexis Herman has backed away from a letter put out by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that says employers are obligated to assure safe working conditions for employees who work from home. But she has yet to say whether the policy has been rescinded. It should be, as befits one of the most harebrained ideas to come from Washington in years.

If implemented, the OSHA decision would mean requiring companies to assure that the nation's 20 million telecommuters have ergonomically correct chairs and computer tables, as well as acceptable heating, cooling, lighting and even first-aid kits.

How is your boss supposed to do that? "One obvious and effective means of ensuring employee safety would be periodic safety checks of employee working spaces," OSHA said. That's great news if you want your supervisor invading your study, your basement or your bedroom.

Telecommuters are fully competent to decide for themselves what sort of equipment, furniture, lighting and ventilation they need to do their jobs safely and comfortably at home. Millions of them have been doing that for years, without any apparent epidemic of injuries.

The real problem with OSHA's policy is that it might induce many companies to ban telecommuting altogether -- to the detriment of both employees and employers. That suggests a new slogan for the agency: If it ain't broke, break it.

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