Copyright © 2000 by Ethan A. Winning. All Rights Reserved.
I can't say, well, it finally happened. Who in their right mind would have thought that it could even be contemplated? Who would have ever thought that one government bureaucracy could set back by 50 years what was only developed five or six years ago? Yet, there it was in this morning's paper: OSHA says that companies are liable for employees who are injured as they telecommute! Stated not as an advisory, but as an absolute rule, OSHA vaguely says that employers are responsible for the same ergonomic and safety measures for their employees working at home as it is for those who work in their offices. "Absurd" doesn't cover it. "Stupid" comes closer.
So, there I was, sitting in my home office, when the doorbell rang. I ran downstairs -- almost tripped and broke my neck -- and couldn't believe who was at my door, a US DOL OSHA inspector.
OSHA: "Mr. Winning, I'm Herebee Lapidoca from OSHA. A complaint has been filed on your behalf regarding unsafe working conditions in your ... office ... at home ....er ... home office."
EW: "Who could have filed a complaint. There's just me, my wife and the dog, and the dog can barely use a keyboard let alone the telephone."
OSHA: "I'm just following up on this complaint." (Makes a check mark on his clipboard.)
EW: "What did you just mark?"
OSHA: "I see that you have scissors in your hand. Have you been running with them?"
EW: "Yeah, once in a while just for the sheer (sic) high I get from it. At the same time, running with scissors is balanced by the fact that I play well with others."
OSHA: "I'm not here to conduct a performance evaluation. Perhaps one of your clients has filed this complaint. It's for your own good, you know. Can I see your office?"
EW: "It's right through that door."
OSHA: "Hmmm. That door slides only one way. That's a safety hazard. It should have either 'Push' or 'Pull' signs on this side."
EW: "You can't push or pull a sliding door. Besides, I don't have a door disability"
OSHA: "That's okay. We've got to make sure that you never do. My first recommendation ... actually an order ... is that you are to replace that door."
EW: "Whoa! When did you come up with these inane regs?"
OSHA: "Two years ago, but we just put them into effect January 1. We figured that no one would notice on New Year's Day. Now, then. I see that your computer screen is at least 7 inches below eye level. That could cause eye strain. I'm afraid I'll have to cite your employer for that."
EW: "I'm my employer."
OSHA: "Then the citation won't come as a surprise when I mail it to you."
EW: "It took OSHA two years to come up with an idea that any idiot could have come up with in two minutes?"
OSHA: "Are you calling us 'idiots'?"
EW: "No, the idiot would have dismissed the idea."
OSHA: "Next, there's no wrist rest for your keyboard."
EW: "There's no room on the desk. It's only 18 inches deep."
OSHA: "Then I guess you'll have to replace the desk, too."
EW: "What if I lower the chair so that the monitor is at eye level, and then put the keyboard on the floor."
OSHA: "That won't do. You'll have back strain from trying to reach the keyboard, and the monitor will cause eye strain."
EW: "You're giving me a migraine."
OSHA: "Unless that comes from eye strain, you'll have to go to ADA to file that kind of complaint. On the bright side, you could be eligible for Workers' Comp Insurance."
EW: "If I file for Workers' Comp, I'd be out of work."
OSHA: "You wouldn't need to work. Your insurance will cover you while you're on disability. A bigger concern might be that your Workers' Comp carrier could cancel your insurance if you don't make these ergonomic changes. I notice that you don't have a mouse pad rest, either."
EW: "My mouse operates on infrared."
OSHA: "That will never do. Infrared can damage your eyes."
EW: "Only if I push the whole mouse into one eye socket."
OSHA: "Is that socket UL approved?"
EW: "How long do you think it will take a proctologist to remove a mouse from your ...."
OSHA: "Let's remain civil, shall we."
EW: "Let's not. There are many problems with telecommuting such as time and record keeping, overtime, and supervision. But telecommuting may well be the wave of the future. There are already 18 million people who commute part-time. With OSHA's new edicts, instead of that doubling, you may halve it."
OSHA: "Have what?"
EW: "Halve, not have. If you reduce the number of telecommuters, instead of it only taking three hours to commute 28 miles to work on the freeway, it might take six hours. You're adding to the congestion."
OSHA: "When did you first notice this congestion? It may come from poor ventilation. So, other than the door, the monitor, the keyboard, and the desk, perhaps you'd better replace your furnace and filtration system. Do you have an upstairs office, too?"
EW: "Yes, but..."
OSHA: "Hmmmm. You only have one bannister going up stairs."
EW: "Yes, but there's one coming down, too."
OSHA: "Doesn't matter. Stairs in and of themselves are hazardous. Perhaps you should put in an elevator."
EW: "I don't have a license to operate an elevator."
OSHA: "Then I guess you can't use that other office. In the meantime, don't forget that, whether you have one or 100 employees, you must provide safety training."
EW: "People will think I'm crazy lecturing myself."
OSHA: "Nah. We talk to ourselves all the down at OSHA, and no one thinks that that's crazy."
EW: "Maybe because your definition of 'normal' differs from the rest of society. You know what I think I'm going to do? I'm going to have a contract with myself, absolving me of any liability."
OSHA: "Don't sign it. I know your employer, and that could be a trick."
I wrote the preceding on Jan. 4, 2000. On Jan. 5, the Secretary of the Department of Labor, rescinded the order. I'll let you draw your own conclusions about my influence in Washington.