Companies that allow employees to work at home are responsible for federal health and safety violations that occur at the home work site, according to a Labor Department advisory.

The decision covers millions of people, not only the estimated 19.6 million adult workers who regularly telecommute from their homes to their jobs, but also millions more who work at home occasionally--even the parent who has to dash out of the office to be with a sick child and finishes a memo at home.

"If an employer is allowing it to happen, it is covered," said Charles Jeffress, the assistant secretary of labor in charge of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which issued the advisory in response to a request from one employer in Texas. The advisory is not a proposed rule, but rather a declaration of existing policy the agency deems already to be in effect. OSHA spent more than two years formulating its written response on the work-at-home issue.

Although the advisory does not provide specifics, in effect it means that employers are responsible for making sure an employee has ergonomically correct furniture, such as chairs and computer tables, as well as proper lighting, heating, cooling and ventilation systems in the home office. The employer must also provide any needed training to comply with OSHA standards, including making sure the home work space has emergency medical plans and a first-aid kit.

"This is nuts. They're trying to match a 30-year-old law with a year 2000 work force," said Pat Cleary, vice president of human resources policies at the National Association of Manufacturers. "The law doesn't contemplate everyone painting their banisters yellow."

But Peg Seminario, health and safety director of the AFL-CIO, said she agrees with the policy spelled out in the advisory. "It makes sense," she said. "Employers have to provide employees a workplace free from hazards."

Gail Martin, executive director of the D.C.-based International Telework Association, which promotes telecommuting, said she worries that the new OSHA interpretation could pose "one more barrier" to telecommuting among companies where inflexible managers are already biased against supervising employees who labor off-site.

"It seems that with everything we gain, a cure for this or a pill for that, new problems emerge," Martin said. "It's such a paradigm shift in the way we manage people."

On the other hand, Martin said, "work and home are now being commingled" in ways that require employers and workers to think more carefully about telecommuting policies that arise informally and that may result in unsafe working conditions.

Martin said most well-run companies have already adopted formal "memorandums of agreement" with telecommuting workers that spell out the kinds of workstations employees are supposed to maintain at home. The problem, however, is that though companies may have drafted legal documents as to workers' responsibilities, some workers simply don't know what makes a work environment safe or unsafe.

OSHA officials made it clear they have no intention of conducting inspections at private homes the way they do at employer work sites. And they are not requiring employers to routinely inspect the home work sites of their employees. But the advisory does hold employers responsible for any illnesses or injuries that occur in the home workplace.

Any injuries that occur at the home work site must be reported on the employer's injury log just as though they happened at the employer's work site. Employers can be charged and fined by OSHA if they do not provide safe workplaces and employers are responsible for making any needed corrections.

OSHA officials said they aren't particularly concerned about the state of an employee's home outside the designated work site. "An employer is responsible for ensuring that its employees have a safe and healthful workplace, not a safe and healthful home," the advisory letter said.

There are some instances, however, where conditions in the home outside the work site could constitute a safety hazard the employer would be responsible for fixing. As an example, OSHA said, "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 condition."

The bottom line, according to the OSHA letter, is that when an employee works at home "the employer is responsible for correcting hazards of which it is aware, or should be aware."

The advisory was sent in mid-November but came to the attention of companies only in recent days.

Tim Fisher of the American Society of Safety Engineers said the OSHA letter would serve as a guideline for employers' insurance carriers. Fisher predicted that most of the home work violations would be in the areas of ergonomics and indoor air quality.

Fisher said his association has received about 425 calls from members since the letter was issued. Many association members work for insurance firms that inspect home work sites to determine safety liabilities.

Several corporations contacted yesterday said they were either unaware of the new guidelines or didn't want to make a statement at this time.

Alfred King of Fannie Mae, the Washington-based secondary mortgage company, said that only about 3 percent of its 3,900 employees work at home and that Fannie Mae did not conduct safety inspections. King said employees were given a handbook of general office guidance and setup procedures for the home office.

Telecommuting consultant David Mead, president of TSI Services Inc. of Inglewood, Colo., said early this year that he audited the telecommuting program at a major Fortune 500 company. He said he asked about 250 employees, all well-paid professionals, to provide photographs from five angles of their home workstations. He said he learned that many of the workers' home offices were "grossly unsafe."

Mead said one worker was saving money by using a wooden plank stretched across two file cabinets of differing heights as a base for his personal computer. Many workers were so surrounded by piles of paper and books that it would be difficult to evacuate quickly if a fire broke out. Many were overloading the electrical circuits of older homes or were working in confined areas with no ventilation, posing the risk of a fire if any piece of equipment should overheat.

"Without a program that extends to the home, the company is not likely to know what is going on," Mead said. "Ignorance has never been an acceptable excuse for an unsafe working environment."

Additional regulatory burdens to telecommuting could pose a special hardship in Washington, where the high levels of technical literacy, affluence and traffic congestion combine to make telecommuting particularly popular among workers. Wallace Holland, 59, a retired federal employee who now works from his D.C. home for a resume-writing service, said he would consider it an invasion of his privacy for an employer to look into workers' homes.

"The home environment is the responsibility of the person who owns the home," Holland said. "I find it hard to fathom why employers would be involved with that."