Magazine article Occupational Hazards

OSHA Backs off on Home Rules

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

OSHA Backs off on Home Rules

Article excerpt

The new year started with an embarrassing flip-flop for the nation's top job safety agency.

It took OSHA more than two years to write an advisory letter to a Texas company executive seeking guidance on the matter, but OSHA finally replied: Companies are responsible for federal health and safety violations that occur at the home work site. It took less than two days for Labor Secretary Alexis Herman to rescind the letter after business leaders and Republican lawmakers rallied to protest the policy.

Although the letter was written in November and posted on OSHA's Web site, the furor began only after The Washington Post publicized the policy in a front-page story Jan. 4.

Mounting Confusion

Leading the charge against OSHA was Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and a chairman of its transportation subcommittee. On the day after the Post's story, Wolf gathered more than a dozen business and political leaders who hammered the OSHA policy from all sides.

"The OSHA advisory would roll back the progress now being made to make telework part of the 21st century workplace environment," Wolf charged. The GOP lawmaker argued that the nation's 19 million teleworkers take cars off the road, reducing air pollution and traffic congestion.

Other speakers at the Jan. 5 press conference attacked the policy because it would promote a "Big Brother" approach to job safety, with government inspectors snooping around private homes looking for safety violations. Some business leaders said the letter raised questions about employers' legal liability for work at home, producing a "chilling effect" on job creation and telecommuting. Several representatives charged that OSHA is anti-woman and anti-family because the policy would make it harder for parents trying to balance work and family duties.

Before the day was over, Herman and the White House had heard enough. Herman withdrew the letter, saying "[ldots] the letter has caused widespread confusion and unintended consequences for others." The Labor secretary found it was easier to pull the letter than it was to rescind the confusion it had created.

While the U.S. Chamber of Commerce lost no time in crowing about its "victory" over a Clinton administration policy, others wondered if withdrawing the letter meant reversing the policy.

"If OSHA and the Department of Labor are actually rescinding their interpretation of health and safety rules for home work sites, we are delighted," said Pat Cleary, vice president for human resources at the National Association of Manufacturers. "If they are just 'withdrawing the letter,' but sticking to the interpretation, the confusion remains."

One man who apparently remains confused about the policy is Troy Trahan of CSC Credit Services in Houston, whose Aug. 21, 1997, letter to OSHA provoked the national brouhaha. After OSHA rescinded its response to Trahan's request for information, Occupational Hazards asked Trahan if he now understands the agency's policies with respect to employees working at home.

After saying CSC "appreciated OSHA's response," Trahan indicated he would have no further comment on the effect of rescinding the letter. "What we're doing now is reviewing the response in our legal groups, and we'll see how we go forward from here," he said.

Trahan also said that OSHA Deputy Assistant Secretary Davis Lane called him to seek Trahan's recommendation on whether to rescind the letter. "I told him [Lane], 'You guys are the leaders in the band at this point, so you've got to figure out what you want to do. …

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