Commentary | Jobs and Unemployment

Taking the risks of telecommuting seriously—Viewpoints | EPI

Opinion pieces and speeches by EPI staff and associates.


Taking the risks of telecommuting seriously

by Eileen Appelbaum

The overwrought response of businesses across the country to OSHA’s advisory that workplace safety laws apply to telecommuters could have been predicted. Companies have made it pretty clear what they object to. But what, exactly, do they want?

Certainly, employers are not suggesting that the responsibilities they have for the health and safety of their employees disappear when those workers telecommute. No, the claim is that employers can be counted on to use common sense and take measures to ensure the well being of their work-at-home employees.

Businesses can find plenty of good advice if they want to safeguard their employees’ health and safety and to assist workers in setting up safe home offices. A telecommuting training and consulting company offers “101 Tips for Telecommuters,” with guidelines for a safe and healthy office. A leading provider of information on business and employment law to large and small employers helps companies put in place standards to assure that the telecommuter’s home office is safe and ergonomically friendly.

But few companies seem to be paying attention. The evidence suggests that most companies have failed to address the management issues involved in telecommuting and probably have not taken the steps necessary to provide for the health and safety of telecommuters.

A survey of teleworking at U.S. companies, conducted by the American Management Association and issued two days before Labor Secretary Alexis Herman withdrew the advisory on safety in the home workplace, is revealing. The survey found that only 7% of teleworkers have been formally trained to work outside their normal office environment, less than half have been supplied with the necessary equipment to conduct business from home, and nearly half report that they lack adequate technical support when they work at home.

A nudge from OSHA may be just what these companies need.

Telecommuting provides benefits for both workers and employers. It has grown dramatically in the last decade. Today, nearly 20 million people — 10% of the adult workforce — regularly works at home, at least part of the time, during regular business hours. The risks of injury in a home office may be far lower than in factories, mines, and mills. But telecommuters are as likely as are other office workers to suffer from back injuries, repetitive stress problems, and other workplace hazards. And they are at risk of injury from fire if they lack an adequate electrical system, or if they don’t have a smoke detector or fire extinguisher nearby.

Since its creation in 1973, OSHA has done much to improve workplace safety and reduce occupational injury and illness rates. OSHA has a continuing obligation to provide guidelines and oversight that will keep workers safe and healthy even as the nature of work and the work site change. This includes regulating the safety, cleanliness, and ergonomics of telecommuters’ home offices. Certainly, safety standards should reflect the realities of these work sites, and need not be the same as in more hazardous settings. But employees who work at home should not face greater health risks than they would doing that same job on the employers’ premises.

Secretary Herman has it right. We do need a national dialogue on issues relating to telecommuting to determine how workplace health and safety can be applied to employees who work at home.


Eileen Appelbaum is Research Director at the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C. research organization.

See related work on Jobs | Wages, Incomes, and Wealth