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Here are some initial thoughts on this topic. For those of you who have been involved with telecommuting for a while, it is not likely you will find much that's new here; if so, consider it a reminder about what's important:

A. Policies - Your telecommuting agreement (you DO have one, don't you?) should address the home-inspection and health and safety issue and clearly state your responsibility. You can see how I handle this in the "boilerplate" agreement posted on this site, but that's only a starter.

B. Training - Your training program or materials for telecommuters (you DO have training in place, don't you?) should provide tips about how to create and maintain a safe workplace in the home; see the Training Tips section below for details.

C. Prevention - If employers want to prevent home-office injuries they must do everything possible to prevent them. This means, for example, making sure that any equipment provided for home use is free of visible defects or faults, e.g., no frayed wires, no ungrounded plugs, no shaky desks or wobbly chairs, etc.

D. Inspection - This is a complicated issue, and I can argue both sides of it and have done so. You have three choices:

- If you have someone make a home-office visit, it must be done with at least 24 hours prior notice AND it must deal only with the home-office area AND the visitor must come equipped with a checklist of what to look for AND it must be approached as a consultative visit and not a punitive one, e.g., don't visit, take all kinds of notes and then walk away leaving the telecommuter in the dark. If you notice an unsafe area or situation, discuss it and fix it on the spot.

- Alternatively, you may choose to have your telecommuters bring in photos of their home-office areas. This has the advantage of letting you see the arrangement without getting into the kind of invasion-of-privacy concerns that some (but certainly not all) employees may have. If you take this route, be sure to give the telecommuters a clear description of what kinds of photos you want and what should be included in them.

- Some of my clients' legal departments have taken the position that if the employer makes a home-office visit and "certifies" it to be safe - and then if the telecommuter is injured there the next day or whenever, the employer may be MORE liable than if no inspection had been done at all. Therefore, these lawyers argue that no inspection is better (for the company) than any inspection. This has always struck me as the ultimate head-in-the-sand approach, but I mention it so you can consider it along with the others options.

[I can't resist an aside about the photos. In the early days of pre-employment drug testing, employers used to require applicants to bring in urine samples for testing. It wasn't too long before people who had been partaking of various illegal substances figured out that they could bring in a "clean" urine sample from a friend and fool the employer. Soon after, of course, employers got smart and started collecting urine samples on-site. I wonder if someone has already set up a Web site on which they sell photos of "clean" home offices that are downloadable for a fee. That way, a prospective telecommuter with a disastrous office could simply download a photo of a perfectly safe office and bring it in to the employer...]

E. Furniture - We know that most employers today do not provide home-office furniture for telecommuters. This is for a variety of reasons - perceptions about cost, perceptions that employees won't want, or don't have space for, such furniture, and confusion about guidelines for who does and doesn't get the furniture.

The good news is that the cost has come down, and the furniture designers have come up with very attractive, home-suitable furniture. You can see examples of some of this in the Furniture section of the Products and Services section of this site.

The one change that the OSHA advisory might trigger is that some employers might reconsider their decisions about whether or not to provide furniture. Here are some of my suggestions:

- A person whose job involves high-volume keyboarding and for whom you have provided an ergonomically-correct chair and workstation in the central office should probably have the same set-up in the home office. The rationale is simple: you provide those items in your office because you believe they will help the employee be comfortable, work effectively, and avoid the risk of repetitive-motion injuries. If that's true in the office it shouldn't be any different away from the office.

- On the other hand, a telecommuter whose job involves only occasional keyboarding (checking email a few times a day, writing a few memos, etc.) and who is thus less subject to repetitive-motion injuries may not have as much of a need for this furniture. Before you make a decision about whether or not to provide furniture, you would do well to consult with a qualified occupational safety and health or ergonomics expert.

- Keep in mind that repetitive-motion injuries are, by definition, cumulative. If a telecommuter develops carpal tunnel syndrome or other problems, this does not necessarily mean they were caused by the telecommuting environment. But if this person had worked in the office full-time using ergonomically-correct furniture the company provided and had no physical problems, and now telecommutes several days a week on unsuitable furniture and THEN develops problems, it seems to me that the employer is more likely to be liable, especially if the person is doing high-volume keyboarding work.

- Good telecommuter selection practice dictates the those selected have a good work history and performance record, and thus tend to be among the better if not the best workers. Workers Compensation and OSHA claims aside, why would an employer want to jeopardize these talented workers by even inadvertently putting them in a home work environment that increases the risk of injury and disability? While some employers will say that the cost of furniture is prohibitive, it is a capital item that is depreciable, and its cost is a fraction of the cost of paying claims and, more important, the cost of replacing a talented worker in today's job market.

G. Other Resources - There are many resources available on the Web to help you understand these ergonomics and safety issues. The "How-To" Resources section of this site contains links to some of these; in particular, here are three representative resources:

  • OSHA issued a news release on February 25, 2000 confirming that it will not routinely perform home-office inspections. The release refers to an internal OSHA directive on this matter sent out to all field offices. (My thanks to John Edwards of Telework Analytics for bringing this to my attention).
  • Jack Nilles of JALA International has some excellent comments about and responses to the OSHA issues on his site.
  • Faegre and Benson (a Minneapolis law firm) statement on OSHA issue, written by attorney Charles Knapp.
  • WorkersCompInfo. www.workerscompinfo.com includes resources on ergonomics and OSHA-related issues.


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