Should your employer be responsible for your office safety if you're a telecommuter? The issue of just who's liable when your home work site violates health and safety codes heated up earlier this month when a Labor Department advisory said that employers are responsible for making sure that at-home workers have ergonomically correct furniture, proper lighting, adequate ventilation and more. The advisory was withdrawn the day after it generated loud protest from business groups over the possibility of government inspectors snooping around private homes. However, with California Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules still requiring employers to provide safe environments for subordinates who work from home, the issue remains a sticking point.
Will such a policy mean a decrease in telecommuting? Is it fair to hold an employer responsible for a home office that's miles away from corporate headquarters? RACHEL FISCHER asked a CAL-OSHA expert and a local telecommuter their opinions.
'This Is a Reminder; Don't Overreact'
Los Angeles area regional manager for CAL-OSHA
Although I can't speak to the situation with the federal OSHA, the California Labor Code says that every employer shall furnish a place of employment that is safe and healthful. That means that the little home office that an employee sets up with his employer's blessing is an extension of office headquarters. Some workers are exceptions to the rule, such as federal agents who work at home.
But, if you come down to it, this isn't anything new: This interpretation of the code, noting an employer's liability, has been on the books for more than a decade. Our inspections are typically at workplaces, and we have no intention of knocking on people's house doors. Employers should be the ones to encourage their employees to check their workplaces for safety, including seeing that all electrical outlets are grounded and knowing how to escape your home or building in case of an emergency.
This is just a reminder that you should take a look at your home office to see what precautions you can take. It is jumping to conclusions to assume that the regulation will negatively affect the telecommuting industry. Many telecommuters are not fully aware that their home office counts as a workplace, and I'm hoping that people will read this and take another look around.
The things we recommend take only a few minutes and are not expensive. For instance, you can buy a circuit tester for $10 or $12 and it will tell you whether your wiring is correct and safe--something you should do in your home, anyway. And if there are stairs that lead to a home office--say it's in your basement--simply make sure those stairs are clear of objects and that there is adequate lighting.
Employers are fairly knowledgeable about all of this, anyway, and it shouldn't change anything or prevent workers from telecommuting in the future. It's the same expense for employers to make sure your desk is ergonomically correct, whether it's at your home or work. CAL-OSHA will also provide a free safety inspection, at an employer's request, although the employer must then agree to make the necessary changes.
We simply want employers and employees to recognize their responsibility in terms of safety. This is not an effort to create problems between employers and employees.
'Telecommuting Lets Me Work'
Louise Gonzalez telecommutes as an educational recruiter for Canter Educational Productions, Santa Monica.
Even before going on maternity leave to have my son, Jack, who's now 17 months, I had suggested the possibility of telecommuting to my boss. Luckily, I work at a company that is responsive to such things, so after returning to the office two days a week after my pregnancy, we decided to try out telecommuting.
On the part-time salary I was making, it wasn't even worth it for me to go off to work. And I don't want to just stick my son in day care; I want to be home with him until he's in preschool.
So the telecommuting has really been key: I have a set work time on Monday afternoons, and the rest of my hours are made up whenever I have time. This works for everyone involved, since I'm on the projects that aren't urgent and that no one ever used to get to at the office. The company helped me set up the computer at home and, at that time, they quizzed me about my home-office safety. My husband and I also had a safety inspection done on our own, so I'm not worried.
I do think, though, that rules like this could scare employers off of letting people work at home. Somebody could lie about getting hurt at home and sue, so employers might feel that they have to weigh really carefully whom they trust enough to work at home.
Telecommuting is a huge thing for people like me. It gives you freedom, and it's allowing my husband and me some financial flexibility and a little fun money. I end up feeling like I'm contributing, but I get to stay with my son. Plus, I feel like I'm still part of the "adult" world and my resume won't have a hole in it later.
Telecommuting has been a good thing all the way around: The company's getting a person who's highly skilled instead of a new part-timer or intern they'd have to train, and I have more loyalty to them now. The fact that they allowed me to do this makes me want to come back to them instead of some other company when I'm ready for full-time again.