ASSISTANT SECRETARY FOR OCCUPATIONAL SAFETY AND HEALTH
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF LABOR
THE SUBCOMMITTEE ON EMPLOYMENT, SAFETY, AND TRAINING
SENATE COMMITTEE ON HEALTH, EDUCATION, LABOR AND PENSIONS
Mr. Chairman, Members of the Subcommittee:
Thank you for this opportunity to clarify the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's policies regarding home-based worksites. I would like to reiterate at the outset that the Department of Labor strongly supports telecommuting and telework. As Secretary Herman has said: "Family-friendly, flexible and fair work arrangements, including telecommuting, can benefit individual employees and their families, employers and society as a whole." OSHA has taken no action -- nor will it take any action -- that would discourage this form of work.
As you know, the purpose of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 is to "assure so far as possible every working man and woman in the Nation safe and healthful working conditions... ." (Sec. 2(b)). The OSH Act applies to "employment performed in a workplace" in the United States (Sec. 4). Furthermore, every employer has a duty to furnish to each of its employees "employment and a place of employment which is free from recognized hazards." (Sec. 5(a)(1)). There is no provision in the law that excludes workplaces that are located in a home. However, as I will explain, OSHA holds employers responsible only for work activities in home workplaces other than home offices, for example, where hazardous materials, equipment, or work processes are provided or required to be used in an employee's home.
As a normal course of business, OSHA provides technical assistance to employers. We responded by letter to more than 1,900 requests last year. Congress has encouraged -- even required -- OSHA to provide compliance assistance, and employers have told us that they appreciate the help. These letters are intended to clarify the law in response to an employer's circumstances, not to establish broadly applicable new policies.
However, OSHA's November 15, 1999, letter led to some confusion about the issue of safety and health issues relating to work performed at home. To correct that, and to provide certainty to employers about our policy, we are taking this opportunity to clearly state our enforcement policy in a way that more accurately reflects our longstanding practice, as follows:
- We believe the OSH Act does not apply to an employee's house or furnishings;
- OSHA will not hold employers liable for work activities in employees' home offices;
- OSHA does not expect employers to inspect home offices;
- OSHA does not, and will not, inspect home offices;
- Approximately 20 percent of employers, because of their size or industry classification, are required by the OSH Act, to keep records of work-related injuries and illnesses. These employers continue to be responsible for keeping such records, regardless of whether the injuries occur in the factory, on the road, in a home office, or elsewhere, as long as they are work-related.
- Where work other than office work is performed at home, such as manufacturing operations, employers are responsible for hazardous materials, equipment, or work processes which they provide or require to be used in an employee's home;
- OSHA will only conduct inspections of hazardous home workplaces, such as home manufacturing, when OSHA receives a complaint or referral.
Current OSHA rules are consistent with these principles, and we would expect future rules would be as well. The bottom line is, as it has always been, that OSHA will respect the privacy of the home and expects that employers will as well.
In clarifying OSHA's policy on home offices, it is important to remember OSHA's primary mission: to reduce injuries, illnesses and fatalities among America's workers. More than 6,000 workers died on the job in our country last year, and OSHA has serious work to do in high hazard workplaces. We target our limited staff and resources to workplaces with high injury and illness rates as identified in our employer surveys and in our strategic plan.
While respecting the privacy of the home, we should keep in mind that certain types of work at home can be dangerous. Two examples from the State of California illustrate this point. First, in May 1998, 17 people were injured when fireworks being manufactured in a home exploded and destroyed the house. Second, investigations in California last year revealed that at least a dozen Silicon Valley electronics manufacturers had assigned piece work assembly to employees working in their homes. The operations commonly involved the use of lead solder and acid flux, and investigators found the home workers unprotected from hazards relating to the inhalation of soldering fumes.
In response to your inquiry, Mr. Chairman, OSHA performs approximately 35,000 inspections per year. We have identified to date three cases when OSHA actually entered an employee's home to conduct inspections:
Manns Bait Manufacturing (1978): An employee of this Eufaula, Alabama company worked at home casting lead head jigs for fishing lures. Surrounded by her children, she poured and trimmed the jigs at the family's kitchen table. She had no training in lead hazards, nor was she aware that exposure could result in miscarriage or birth defects, damage to the central nervous system and delays in cognitive development for children. The inspection found the kitchen surfaces to be contaminated, placing the entire family at risk.
Capco, Inc. (1985): Employees of this Grand Junction, Colorado company were removed from their jobs building electronic capacitors after an OSHA inspection in 1984 revealed high blood lead levels. Afterwards, they began working for the company off-site at their homes. In response to complaints from seven workers, OSHA inspected the homes of three employees in 1985. Compliance Officers found workers using unguarded crimping machines, which could result in amputations. Workers were also handling adhesives without protective gloves, which could lead to dermatitis, liver damage or cancer.
B & B Metal Processing (1991): Employees at this Newton, Wisconsin company processed scrap metals. In 1991, after an employee was admitted to the hospital to treat high blood levels of lead, based on a complaint, OSHA inspected, and found lead exposure levels 100 times the permissible exposure level. Because the company failed to provide shower rooms for workers or laundering facilities for their lead-contaminated clothing, workers were required to take contaminated clothing home. Workers encouraged OSHA to inspect their homes for possible contamination.
I regret the confusion caused by the letter of November 15. Let me state that we have not inspected offices in homes; we do not inspect offices in homes; and we have no intention of inspecting offices in homes. The letter suggested OSHA policy where no such policy exists, and I regret the unintended consequences it caused. Our internal clearance mechanisms for reviewing such letters failed to raise this issue to the appropriate level.
As you know, Secretary Herman has announced a national dialogue on telecommuting. The Secretary has had talks with individual labor and business leaders over the past three weeks, and she will continue to meet with a variety of individuals to explore the broad social and economic effects of telecommuting. In addition, at Secretary Herman's request, the National Economic Council plans to convene an interagency working group that will include the Department of Commerce, the Small Business Administration, and other agencies to examine these issues.
Our economy and the modern workplace are undergoing revolutionary changes. Telecommunication in the information age is changing the way millions of Americans communicate, commute and work. Over the last several years, this Administration and the Congress have joined together to encourage these changes, many of which have proved beneficial to the economy, to the environment, and to families. Clearly, we have an obligation to ensure that OSHA's role reflects the new realities of the workplace.
We look forward to continued partnership with the Congress on this and other issues that are so important to America's working families.
I thank you again for this opportunity to testify today and clarify OSHA's policy related to home-based worksites.