Telecommuters Exempt from OSHA Rules

FRAMINGHAM (01/28/2000) - Employers aren't responsible for the health and safety of white-collar telecommuters after all, U.S. Department of Labor officials said last week.

But employers are still liable for any health and safety violations experienced by workers who engage in hazardous manufacturing jobs at home, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

OSHA's Carl Fillichio confirmed published reports regarding testimony given last week to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee by Charles Jeffress, assistant secretary of Labor. The agency's latest position contradicts a "letter of interpretation" issued in November to CSC Credit Services in Houston. That letter said all companies that allow employees to work at home are responsible for injuries suffered by those workers.

However, OSHA swiftly withdrew its interpretation - a reaffirmation of the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act - after an uproar from employers and some members of Congress who said the interpretation could signal the beginning of the end of the work-at-home era for hundreds of companies, including technology firms.

This current position will be taken into account in any future work-at-home regulations, Jeffress said.

Also, OSHA's proposed ergonomics standards will most likely incorporate a distinction between white-collar telecommuters and blue-collar employees engaged in hazardous manufacturing at home.

The ergonomics standards, which are opposed by many businesses, would hold employers responsible for repetitive-strain injuries suffered by workers in the office.

Jeffress' statements about the white-collar exemption were confusing to at least one member of the Center for Office Technology, an Alexandria, Va.-based trade group for computer equipment makers.

"I find it interesting that OSHA has exempted teleworkers and left in people who work in dangerous jobs," said Sherry Saunders, a spokeswoman for the center. "Is keyboarding at the office more dangerous than keyboarding at home?"

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