Approved March 30, 2000
EMPLOYEES WHO WORK IN THE HOME AND OSHA STANDARDS FOR OCCUPATIONAL SAFETY AND HEALTH
ASSE recognizes that issue of regulatory agency oversight of home worker safety and health is complex. Of primary concern is the issue of privacy for the home resident. ASSE believes that, once examined, the home worker debate can be placed in its proper perspective.
This paper assumes that the home worksite encompasses a worker's primary residence, whether a house, apartment or condominium, rather than a site away from the primary residence. ASSE believes that the employee bears the primary responsibility for safety and health at his or her home worksite. ASSE concludes that rarely are workers exposed to serious health and safety hazards and exposures created by the employer at a residential worksite.
However, regardless of where an employee works, the employer has an obligation to understand and anticipate what hazards an employee may encounter when performing job-related functions. Anticipating that most home work places will have minimal job created or related hazards, the employer should be expected to educate an employee of the known hazards associated with a task regardless of where it is performed.
State and local governmental entities have sufficient statutes and regulations in place to preclude intentional decisions to establish hazardous operations in residential workplaces. Because of Congress' intent to protect all working men and women, the OSHA Act gives OSHA the task of properly assessing what hazards and exposures can be reasonably expected to exist at a work site. Because home worksites can generally be categorized as "low hazard," OSHA's initiatives regarding this issue should be limited to advising and educating employers and employees.
EMPLOYEES WHO WORK IN THE HOME AND OSHA STANDARDS FOR OCCUPATIONAL SAFETY AND HEALTH
With the advent of the information technology revolution, the prevalence of home worksites once again is increasing, as technology workers, entrepreneurs, professional part-time workers and consultants find it beneficial to work from home. Even today, there are the rare home workers who, at the direction of the employer, perform activities that could be considered unhealthful or unsafe. This category of potentially hazardous activity is apparently what prompted OSHA's November1999 Letter of Interpretation targeted regarding the issue of OSHA's authority over home worksites and the employer's responsibility to employees at such sites. That letter was rescinded and OSHA must now address how, in a global perspective, it will respond to home worker issues.
The Home Work Site
Responsibility For Safety And Health
The issue of ultimate responsibility for safety and health rests with the home worker. This is a logical approach, given that resident-employees are responsible for the safety of themselves and their families. Accepting this concept, it then becomes more difficult to ascribe that role solely to an outsider - the employer. For example federal, state and local statutes, regulations and accepted community standards require that homes be equipped with fire detectors. The maintenance of heating equipment, stairs and walkways, the handling of pesticides and the selection and upkeep of equipment located in a home are the responsibility of the home owner, or other designated person who has responsibility for controlling the property (e.g., the employee's landlord). Moreover, "unique" product use hazards associated with home work activity, such as use of pesticides, cleaners, lawn mowers, vehicles, or work shop tools, all come with specific instructions and warnings for the user. While there continues to be an ongoing debate about the responsibility of third parties associated with product manufacture and use, there remains a presumption that an individual, unless mislead, is responsible for his/her own safety and health.
If an outsider creates an uncontrolled hazard, such as a service person doing faulty work, they must accept responsibility for consequences and can be regulated by the appropriate agencies (e.g., a carpenter performing work in a residential structure would fall within OSHA's construction standards, 29 CFR Part 1926). But as a basic principle, if a home worker performs tasks associated with his usual job function, the worker should be trained and knowledgeable about such tasks and the associated risks, whether they are performed at his/her home or off-site location.
In general, with the evolution of American industry to a knowledge and technology- based economy, and with the substantial erosion of traditional manufacturing, it appears that the home worker issues of the 21st century will involve hazards very different than those found during the 1900s.
Employer - Employee vs. Employer -Contractor Issues
There are various reasons an employee may work at home: for example, the situation may arise at the request of the employer or because of a desire to do so by the employee. Considering that the reasons often dictate the time spent doing the work, an employee's exposure to the home work environment can vary greatly or even be limited to evening, weekend or other "overtime" work. Thus, a "one size fits all" response on the part of the employer or government is inappropriate. Further, if one accepts that the vast majority of home work sites are low hazard with regard to the type of activity performed and equipment utilized, the need for an employer to take action beyond standard employee training is even less evident.
ASSE acknowledges that an employer has an obligation to attempt to understand the actual and potential hazards whenever an employee is asked to, or requests to, work at home. That obligation consists of providing employees with appropriate training and protection when they must work in a home site that is reasonably presumed to have hazards. Absent knowledge of specific hazards unique to the home worksite, then an employer can reasonably infer that the employee's home is generally free of operational hazards. As long as the employer does not introduce such hazards to the home, the employer's obligation can be limited to educating the employee about the hazards and precautions associated with the task the employee is assigned to perform at home.
The Role Of The Employer
A prudent employer whose employees may work at home should evaluate that work against the hazards and exposures that could normally be found at a home work site. Based upon such analysis, the employer is better able to advise the employee regarding hazardous exposures associated with the assigned tasks.
The extent and nature of exposure to home work hazards can be utilized by the employer to determine what advice or other action should be provided. For example the employee who works at home because of a cold, may have little exposure to job-related hazards, compared to the employee who works at home for an extended period of time in a non-clerical position. Each situation requires unique and detailed analysis before a decision can be made by the employer.
Employers now educate employees that when they are exposed to hazardous conditions at the employer's worksite or any other assigned worksite, they are to remove themselves from the hazard. The same theory should hold true at home worksites. As doctors often tell their patients, "if it hurts, don't do it."
However, ASSE believes that when an employee performs work at home in a low hazard environment, unless an inherently hazardous task will be performed at the direction of the employer, the employer should not be required to "qualify" the site or otherwise conduct a safety and health audit. The privacy inherent in an employee's home distinguishes it from traditional employer-maintained worksites.
The Role Of Government
In the home worker situation, OSHA will find itself in a quandary if it attempts to "regulate" or legislate a duty in a "one size fits all" manner. The very nature of current home worker tasks does not require government to establish rules of conduct for private citizens and their private property, or to force employers to intrude in their workers' home privacy.
If government equates the most common and benign home work activity with the rare "immediately dangerous to life and health" (IDLH) situations, simply because such benign work is performed off-site , it risks devaluing accident prevention and expending its limited resources in a manner that will yield little benefit.
ASSE suggests that OSHA should reaffirm its role in guiding employers concerning how to provide employees with a safe and healthful working environment. OSHA should provide employers with assistance on how to best educate employees who may be exposed to hazardous conditions, regardless of the worksite. Further, OSHA should advise employers that requiring employees to perform hazardous tasks in the home normally puts the employee and the employer at risk of violating federal, state and local public safety statutes and zoning regulations.
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