Telecommuter Sherri Meadows works six hours a day from her Ashburn home in a loft she has transformed into a home office. Although her home office is childproof to protect her 13-month-old son, Jeremy, it is most likely not safe from government regulators.
The computer programmer has never given much thought to the loft's lighting, the height of her desk or the wires dangling from the wall behind the desk.
That is, until yesterday, when she and her employer, FGM Inc. of Dulles, heard about the Labor Department's position that employers are liable for federal health and safety violations that occur at the home work site.
News of the position--first outlined in November in an Occupational Safety and Health Administration interpretive letter designed to give employers guidance on complying with existing regulations--was "disconcerting," said Vivian McGaw, director of human resources for FGM, a software engineering firm. Of FGM's 120 employees, only four telecommute and the company had planned to increase that number. Those plans will be put on hold, however, until McGaw can "review the implications," she said.
For now, Meadows is not in danger of losing her telecommuting privileges, and in fact her company considers her arrangement a huge success.
Meadows asked to work at home a year ago, shortly after Jeremy was born. "The reaction [from FGM] was positive," she said, "they knew they wanted to keep me working there and that was the way to keep me."
With the help of her husband, Randy, also an FGM programmer, Meadows set up her home office. She received no guidance from FGM management on how to set up her work area, or, say, whether or not she should get a dial-up Internet connection or a cable modem (she decided on a cable modem).
"We figured it out on our own," she said.
The lack of guidance is typical of smaller organizations, said John Edwards, president of the International Telework Association and Council.
Ideally, Edwards said, companies that have telecommuters should set up sample mini-home offices at the company site for employees to study. Telecommuters should also have checklists that help them check their home offices for safety risks, he said. For example, a "safe" office chair is one that has five bottom spokes, or legs, rather than four, which could cause a chair to tip over.
Meadows's swivel chair does have five legs, she was happy to report. "How about that?" she said. But otherwise, she is not sure she is compatible with OSHA regulations. Of course, she is not even sure FGM went so far as to measure the height of her computer desk during her four years working on-site.
McGaw, at FGM, said her goal this year was to formalize the telecommuting policy in order to start expanding the program. She also worries the policy will have to cover anyone who performs work at home, which includes virtually the entire company, she said. By the end of the day yesterday, she had received several urgent messages from managers asking for her progress, and what the risk was for FGM regarding its telecommuters.
The employees, she said, did not seem concerned.
"We have not had a mass panic today, except for from the management side," she said.
Meadows is not concerned that FGM will revoke her privileges.
"I think . . . they trust me to take the precautions," she said, "I'm an adult, I can take care of my [working] conditions."
The government might be happy to learn she keeps Jeremy's toys well out of tripping range, "just off to the side," she said.
Some Homework Questions
Would your home office pass inspection? The General Services Administration asks home-based employees several questions about the conditions of their workplace. They include:
Are temperature, noise, ventilation and lighting levels adequate for maintaining your normal level of job performance?
Are all stairs with four or more steps equipped with handrails?
Will the building's electrical system permit the grounding of electrical equipment?
Are floor surfaces clean, dry, level, and free of work or frayed seams?
Are all circuit breakers and/or fuses in the electrical panel labeled as to intended service?
Are the phone lines, electrical cords and extension wires secured under a desk or alongside a baseboard?
Computer Workstation (if applicable)
Is your chair adjustable?
Do you know how to adjust your chair?
Is the VDT screen free from noticeable glare?
Do you need a document holder?
Is the top of the VDT screen at eye level?
SOURCE: General Services Administration