Thursday, January 6, 2000

The administration that boasted of building the “information superhighway” just put up a detour guaranteed to keep users from taking advantage of it. As with any government initiative, it was supposed to be for the workers’ own good.

This week the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced new rules intended to cover some 20 million Americans now “telecommuting” by using the Internet and other technology to do their jobs from home. Their offices, the agency said, had to meet OSHA standards: The chairs had to be “ergonomically correct.” The lighting, heating, cooling and air quality had to be satisfactory. Their offices needed to have emergency medical plans and a first-aid kit. And workers including those who do the job from home only occasionally, as when caring for a sick child had to be up on all this OSHA-ese, even if it required special training.

OSHA said the rules actually weren’t new; everyone at the agency already knew about them. Nor did it have any plans to enforce the rules itself. Instead, it was going to dragoon company officials into service as agency inspectors and make them do the enforcing. That is, employers would have to perform the inspections to ensure home offices were in compliance. Employers had every reason to comply because, said OSHA, “the employer is responsible for correcting hazards of which it is aware or should be aware.” If home-office workers did something stupid or ergonomically incorrect, therefore, businesses would face legal and financial liability.

Employers, many of whom undoubtedly went along with home-office arrangements for the convenience of their time-strapped employees, found themselves caught in the middle of a battle that was really between workers and OSHA. But it was the agency that had the power, and many businesses faced the prospect of having to bring everyone back to the office where they could keep any eye on employees, their chairs and their air quality. The biggest losers of such a decision would surely be the nation’s men and women who count on home-office duties to juggle family responsibilities and their careers, disabled persons for whom travel is inconvenient if not impossible, and commuters in congested traffic areas like Washington. If you think it’s crowded on the roads now, wait until everyone has to pull the 9-5 shift downtown again.

OSHA argued its new rules were in the best interest of worker safety, the premise being that the government is in the best position to look after workers. “Ensuring safe and healthful working conditions … should be a precondition for any home-based work assignments,” the agency said. In short, workers may think they are capable of weighing the risks and benefits of working at home, but it’s not their choice.

Under pressure from workers and businesses who thought it should be their choice, Labor Secretary Alexis Herman withdrew the rule and agreed to hold a “dialogue” about it. What’s to talk about? The real winners under OSHA’s rule would have been: 1) OSHA, which was losing regulatory turf with each new home-office worker, 2) organized labor, which had a hard time unionizing workers enjoying custom-made working conditions and 3) trial lawyers, who would be only too happy to go to court to highlight OSHA violations about which employers “should” have known.

Thus does the administration subordinate innovation and enterprise to old-fashioned special-interest politicking. If Americans want to continue using the information superhighway as they wish, they better tell the Clinton administration they don’t need any more directions from OSHA on how to get there.

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