Firms that allow employees to work at home are responsible for injuries suffered by those workers, according to the U.S.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
This decision, a reaffirmation of the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act, covers the nearly 20 million people who regularly telecommute from their homes to their jobs, as well as people who only work from home occasionally.
For hundreds of companies, including technology firms, OSHA's decision may signal the beginning of the end of the work-at-home era.
"What this means is that maybe some employees will not be able to work at home because of government interference," said Sherry Saunders, spokeswoman for the Center for Office Technology in Alexandria, Va.
OSHA spokeswoman Sue Fleming said today that the agency was in the process of issuing a statement about the matter.
Although OSHA's response to a 1997 letter from the CSC Credit Bureau in Houston, which asked for clarification about its liability regarding employees who work at home, doesn't offer specifics, it does acknowledge that companies aren't only responsible for providing ergonomically correct work stations, but they may also be responsible for correcting already-existing hazards in the home.
The letter states in part: "... For example: If work is performed in the basement space of a residence and the stairs leading to the space are unsafe, the employer could be liable if the employer knows, or reasonably should have known, of the dangerous situation."
However, OSHA said it won't routinely conduct inspections of home-based workplaces, but, if it receives complaints, the agency can fine employers who don't provide safe home-based sites.
"I think most of our members already provide their employees with information about setting up an ergonomically correct workplace. And they know they have to report any injuries suffered by those workers. But maybe those employers will not want to get involved with designing someone's den," Saunders said.
Although OSHA's letter was written on Nov. 15, 1999, it only recently came to the attention of a number of firms when it was posted on OSHA's Web site in December.