- The Washington Times - Friday, January 7, 2000

When English jurist Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634) observed that "a man's house is his castle," he could not have foreseen the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). That unaccountable regulatory beast within the Department of Labor claims authority to regulate the surroundings of the nearly 20 million people who have a home office and work at least part time at home.
In an advisory responding to a request from a Texas employer, OSHA asserts jurisdiction over home offices if employers allow employees to work at home. After sharp criticism from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other pro-business groups, Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman "reassured" the public that government storm troopers would not be coming to our front doors. Employers would be charged with making sure that home offices have ergonomically correct furniture, "proper" lighting, ventilation, heating and air conditioning, safe staircases, working toilets and other things required of more traditional workplaces.
The media played this up as "helping" people. It is the view the media take of all government programs and regulations, even those that fail, because it isn't success that matters, only intent. One network interviewed an employer who had discovered a home office in which wooden beams were unevenly placed on file cabinets to serve as support for a computer. Extreme cases are always used by government to force itself on the public, which then must succumb to whatever the government wants us to do. Once a precedent is established, it is difficult to stop further government intrusions
As with virtually everything else that occurs in the Clinton administration, the OSHA regulation is more about politics than safety. Writing in last Wednesday's Wall Street Journal, Eugene Scalia, a Washington attorney, observed: "There is a method to OSHA's madness. The policy is part of a string of recent initiatives intended to court union leaders as the presidential primaries approach … For labor unions, at-home workplaces are a nightmare. How do you unionize workers who don't come to the office? (If they go on strike, do they picket their own homes?) Hence OSHA's policy, and its undoubted effect: to drive up the cost of having employees work at home and thereby discourage one of the most valuable efficiencies of the digital economy."
Unless it is stopped, government will always seek new ways to invade our lives. It cannot tolerate widespread independent success because if people are successful without government, they will have less need of government. The influence, cost and craving for new tax revenue by government will then decline, along with its associated political power. That's what the debate over taxing the Internet is about. Allowing such an independent entrepreneurial invention to prosper without government interference might alert people that they can prosper without government. If you're a government or political careerist, that's worse news than a stock-market plunge.
"This is nuts," said Pat Cleary, a vice president at the National Association of Manufacturers, of the OSHA regulation. "They're trying to match a 30-year-old law with a year 2000 work force." Right now, OSHA says only employers will be responsible for making sure home offices are up to government standards. How many people would be satisfied with the boss or his/her representative making a house call and noticing what else goes on in your home? What if you smoke? Will that be regulated, too, as it is in a traditional office? What other privacies will be invaded? And how long will it be before government, having established the precedent of invading your "castle," declares that employers are not as well equipped as government to make home office workers comply with government regulation and federal agents start knocking on your door or breaking it down? And what other government agency follows OSHA through your door, across your carpet and into whatever other part of your home it decides is necessary to make you conform, in your interest of course, to what government says you must do?
We used to call this "Big Brother" when the Soviets did it.

Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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