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As Workplace, Home Has Hazards


Dilbert has to deal with unproductive meetings, system failures and even Ratbert, the new company concierge. But at least he doesn't have to worry about tripping over computer cords in his home office while racing to answer the phone or having his kids discover the paper shredder.

As more workers flee the cubicle to telecommute or start businesses in the spare bedroom, experts are pointing out that working at home poses some dangers.

"You're safer at work than you sometimes are [working] at home," said Joe Kaplan, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Safety Council.

From the slicing, dicing paper shredder to the blade of a letter opener, "people use all types of different gadgets at home, and there are hazards to which they need to be alerted," Kaplan said.

Because home offices are easily accessible to children, more precautions are required to maintain a work environment that's safe for everyone in the house, officials said.

A U.S. Department of Labor directive released earlier this year found that the safety standards the government uses to regulate offices don't apply to home offices, leaving it up to the workers to make safety a priority.

Labor Secretary Alexis Herman recently called for a "national dialogue" on the issue of home office safety, and she is expected to formalize an examination of the issue after Labor Day on what form this dialogue will take.

Indeed, the issue is likely to take on more importance in the near future as more people elect to work at home, fueled by increasing opportunities for telecommuting and a strong economy that is paving the way for start-up businesses. About 55 million people work at home now, compared with 6 million in 1984.

Often, experts say, safety is an issue most home workers simply don't think about.

"There's no one there to say to you, 'This is a hazard,' " said Rudy Lewis, spokesman for the National Assn. of Home Based Businesses in Maryland. "Things you would traditionally take for granted, like a paper shredder, are dangerous things in the hands of a kid."

Most work-related injuries that occur at home are not reported, said Dean Fryer, spokesman on for the California Department of Labor, because the law doesn't require it.

The growing focus on home office safety is welcomed by Debbie Gilster, owner of Organize & Computerize, a professional office organizing company in Laguna Niguel. She often sees safety shucked in the name of saving money as she travels around the county to help people get their offices in order.

She observes heavy electronic equipment perched on broken furniture, candles left burning next to tall stacks of paper, objects strewn haphazardly across corridors.

"People will do things and put up with things for themselves" that wouldn't fly in offices, Gilster said.

Ergonomic office furniture, though it can be expensive, is an important investment, experts said. Besides creating the risk of eye or wrist strain from improper computer monitor and keyboard placement, some furniture simply isn't sturdy enough to stand up to some of today's electronic devices.

Candles, though wildly popular now, are best left to decorate other parts of the house, Gilster says. If you really would like to have one, then remember them when leaving the room and blow them out, she said.

It's also important, she said, to clear the office of clutter, which can pose a tripping hazard. And always keep paper shredders unplugged and out of the way when they aren't in use, she said. They are a risk to curious children and especially pets, which have been known to stick their tongues into them while they're running.

Rachel Sparks, owner of Sparks Organizing Services in Placentia, has amassed safety tips from her experiences as well.

A common danger, she said, are the numerous power cords that are part of living in an electronic age.

Sparks advises that the cords be kept behind a desk or credenza, where they can't be tripped over or gnawed by pets.

Sparks, who works at home, keeps her cords tied in a neat bunch with a few garbage bag ties, the inexpensive kind available at the grocery store. She did so on the advice of her husband, John, a fire investigator for Los Angeles County.

If furniture placement doesn't allow the cords to be kept behind the desk, Sparks said it's smart to invest in an extra outlet. If that isn't feasible, she said, the cords should be taped securely to the floor and covered with a heavy rug.

Also, Sparks advises, make sure that cords aren't dangling from shelves or closets where curious children will pull them and be hit by the falling appliance.

"Make sure those cords are wrapped up and tied, even if you use a shoelace," she said.

Another step that will keep children safe is to be mindful of sharp objects in desk drawers: scissors, letter openers, even pencils. Sparks counsels her customers to buy plastic child-proof locks similar to those used in kitchen cabinets. Or, she said, keep the objects in the back of the drawer or put them in containers.

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