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Commentary

Isn't OSHA About Worker Safety?

Telecommuting: The agency should wake up to the benefits of home work sites.

January 07, 2000|LYNN SCARLETT | Lynn Scarlett is executive director of the Reason Public Policy Institute, a national nonprofit research and education organization based in Los Angeles

My chair is a bit hard. The room is a tad chilly. But this is where I want to be: telecommuting from my home. The ambience of a Santa Barbara suburb beats that of my West Los Angeles office hands down. And, notwithstanding my ergonomically challenged chair, I am much safer than I was during my years as a road warrior, commuting 160 miles round trip, three or four days each week. A recent advisory of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), happily withdrawn, at least for the time being, threatened to put me, and more than 19 million other American telecommuters, back on the road and back into hermetically sealed high rises. Our safety would have suffered.

With typical regulatory myopia, OSHA issued an advisory that employers are responsible for making home workplaces safe. Among other safety features, employers would have to ensure that telecommuting employees have good-for-the-posture furniture, adequate lighting, heating, cooling, and ventilation, an emergency medical plan and a first aid kit.

Predictably, revelation this week of the OSHA advisory set off a firestorm among employers. Most railed against potential liabilities associated with being required to ensure that each telecommuter's home meets OSHA workplace standards.

In response, just one day after the advisory gained widespread public attention, OSHA began a quick retreat. The federal government, reassured Labor Secretary Alexis Herman, has neither the desire nor the resources to investigate private homes. Herman announced that she was withdrawing the advisory letter.

But, so far, neither the business outcry nor OSHA's response has even touched on the central question: Would the OSHA advisory have improved worker safety? Companies have highlighted the cost to themselves and the inconvenience to workers. OSHA acknowledged enforcement challenges. However, the central argument against OSHA's advisory is that workers would be worse off if the advisory translated into regulatory action.

How could this be? If employers fear increased liabilities for home work sites resulting from the OSHA advisory, they are likely to take slow or even reverse decisions about telecommuting. This would be bad news for worker safety.

Some 19.6 million workers telecommute to some extent. The typical telecommuter drives 9.3 miles each day when working at home. That same worker drives, on average, nearly 44 miles each day that they commute to work. In a year, the typical telecommuter decreases commuting by 1,800 miles. And telecommuters, on average, spend nearly one hour less in the automobile on days that they telecommute.

Using federal figures for highway fatalities, all this extra driving by more than 19 million would-be telecommuters translates into an additional 350 deaths each year and thousands of additional injuries. By contrast, Jack Nilles, president of a workplace consulting firm in California, noted that in the 27 years since Californians initiated the practice of telecommuting, he had not heard of a single workers' comp case brought by a telecommuter.

Of course, death and injury from work-related activities are the extreme consequences of adverse working conditions. But worker well-being also includes peace of mind, avoidance of stress and an enhanced sense of satisfaction. On these fronts, telecommuting wins hands-down.

A 1999 survey of telecommuters reports that 88% of telecommuters are as satisfied or more satisfied working at home. More than half of all telecommuters say the telecommuting option is either an important or extremely important factor in their employment decisions.

There also are ancillary effects of telecommuting that benefit whole communities. By not commuting every day, telecommuters keep some 39,000 tons of hydrocarbons, 590,000 tons of carbon monoxide and 31,000 tons of nitrogen oxides out of the air. Fewer people on the road means less traffic congestion.

Times are changing. The modern home workplace is not the sweatshop of the 19th century in which uneducated, often impoverished immigrants tried to eke out a living in unsanitary, crowded and unsafe tenement houses. Most telecommuters now are white-collar office workers. They don't need OSHA to oversee the safety of their homes.

For the moment, OSHA has been chastened by employer outcry against the advisory letter on home work sites. But Labor Secretary Herman wants to open a dialogue about the issue. Let us hope that such a dialogue examines the safety and quality-of-life benefits that result from telecommuting.

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