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.
The issue of home worksites is not new. Until the beginning of the modern production facility, such as Ford's first automobile assembly facility at River Rouge, much work was done in small shops or the home. The incidence of home work sites ebbed and flowed as the economy and national need dictated. For example, even with the expansion of domestic industry during World War II, a significant amount of war production-related work was done at home. Such activity ebbed rapidly after the war and almost disappeared as a percent of overall production, except for occupations such as artists, artisans, craft workers and sole proprietors. While there is evidence that some of these home work activities had the potential to be "unsafe," the concept that such work in general was uncontrolled and unsafe is based primarily upon perception.
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 November 1999 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.
This paper intends to address, from the safety and health professional's perspective, the following questions: 1) What is a home work site; 2) Who has responsibility for the safety and health conditions at such sites; 3)What are the safety and health issues arising in employer - employee arrangements and employer - contractor relationships; 4)What is the employer's responsibility regarding employees who work in their private dwelling; and, 5) What is the federal government's role in regulating such worksites.
As always, there are some worksites that are unsafe and unhealthy, regardless of location. OSHA references a few examples in its attempt to explain its November 1999 statement. It is prudent public policy, whether it is a governmental occupational safety and health agency, a public safety agency or a fire safety or property protection agency, to consider the impact upon employees, their families and the public of inappropriate or unsafe activities, regardless of where they may occur.
The Home Work Site
For the purposes of this paper, ASSE considers a home worksite to be that location within which a person performing on-site work dwells. This definition includes appurtenant structures directly related to the main residence. Separate locations, owned or leased by an employee but not appurtenant to the employee's home, are not considered by ASSE to be home worksites within the scope of this discussion. It should be self evident that inherently hazardous operations should not be performed at home worksites, and that employers should not suggest, encourage or direct employees to undertake such work at home. Conversely, conducting non-hazardous work at home- such as office-related work- should pose little or no hazard to the home workers as a measure of hazard, the employer can infer from similar jobs at the worksite what the employee may encounter at home. Logically then, considering the knowledge about the employer's workplace, the employer can address with the home worker how work at home can be safely and healthfully accomplished. As an aid to employers and employees, government should assist in the process by providing the employee and employer with appropriate education resources upon request.
Responsibility for Safety And Health
The ultimate responsibility for safety and health at a home work site remains that of the employee, who should be trained regarding the hazards of the tasks performed to produce a work product.
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
The scope of this paper is limited to the working relationship and responsibilities between the employee and employer, and does not reach the relationship between employers and independent contractors. The employer-contractor relationship is firmly established in law and is outside the scope of OSHA's "home work" policy .
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
The employer has an obligation to identify and protect against employer-created hazards and exposures that employees may encounter, wherever the work is performed.
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 the employer can make a decision.
Employers educate employees on dealing with hazardous conditions at the employer's worksite or any other assigned worksite. 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
It is generally accepted that government has both direct and indirect roles in assuring the general safety and health of workers and the public. In its direct role, government (e.g., OSHA and MSHA) has standards in place to guide and direct employers in the protection of employees. State and local governmental agencies also have zoning statutes and regulations limiting what occupational activities can be performed in a home. Such regulations act to reinforce federal worker protection regulations. In its indirect role, government directs or subsidizes research, education and training of employers, employees and others in order to minimize occupational hazards and exposures.
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.
ASSE's position is that inherently hazardous operations of a company should not be performed at home worksites, and employers should not suggest, encourage or direct employees to undertake such work at home. The extent and nature of home work dictates the level of hazard the home worker can be expected to encounter. The employer can infer from similar jobs at the worksite what the employee may encounter at home. Based upon that knowledge, the employer should address with the employee how work can be safely and healthfully accomplished at the home worksite. Government should assist by providing appropriate training and education resources upon requested.
ASSE Position Statement on Employees Who Work in the Home
Approved 3/20/2000 by the ASSE Board of Directors
Updated 6/11/05 by ASSE Government Affairs Committee