Dec. 21, 2004
OSHA's 'home office' misfire underscores the need for flexible ergonomics standards.

I hope I wasn't the only home worker who was greatly relieved when OSHA rescinded its advisory with regard to home-office safety earlier this year. Now don't get me wrong. I think it is clearly the employer's responsibility to safeguard machines, to have safety lockouts on machines, and to manufacture products in a fashion that puts the least amount of stress on muscles and joints. But home inspections for people doing whitecollar work? It's not a sight that I think even the most hardened government compliance officer would want to see. Take my home office, for example. My house is small (not a complaint). So the least obtrusive spot for my computer -- except for the basement -- is a spot near the front door of our living room. OSHA might be able to stomach that if it weren't for the rest of the setup. I'm sure OSHA never would approve of the modem cord that runs from the back of the computer angling across the slate tile entrance floor to a hidden spot near the molding behind the piano where I've drilled a hole to access the phone jack in one of our son's bedrooms. They also wouldn't like my office chair -- a straight-backed kitchen chair that rests partly on the slate tile and partly on carpeting. Or that I step over the side of the chair -- the no shoes would be an OSHA no-no, too -- each time I get up. The OSHA inspector also would cringe that I use the piano bench as my 'desk' for papers because my computer table is just big enough for the computer, keyboard, and mouse. And he or she would wonder how I can type sometimes with the occasional glare on the computer screen that comes either from the dining room doors behind me or the front door. Yet I'm not sure that I'd trade my office setup -- except for a shorter route to a phone jack -- even if I owned a house with enough space for a separate office. Why? I'm not claustrophobic, but I've never liked the isolation of being alone in a room set apart from the central structure of a home. (I guess I would have thrived in the one-room houses of long ago.) And, oddly enough, even though I've read the advice of ergonomists on the ideal computer/desk setup, it's simply never worked for me. Even my workplace office setting with its much larger desk and chair on wheels has never 'felt' as right as the makeshift setup in my home. So what's the lesson for OSHA and employers? First, acknowledge that no one ergonomics standard will likely work for everyone performing the same type of work in offices, whether at work or at home. Height and vision vary. Each person has different physical strengths and physical attributes. Some people are left-handed; others, right-handed; some ambidextrous. Some people like hard chairs, some soft chairs (no different from a mattress preference, for example). That's one reason General Motors' $560 million auto plant under construction in Lansing, Mich., will give workers the ability to raise or to lower the vehicle they are assembling. So while there must be standards and guidelines, maybe what OSHA needs are safety-oriented standards for ergonomics, in both manufacturing and the office, that provide employers and workers the flexibility to take into account the uniqueness of each person. Next, educate the workers through training about ergonomics and give them a voice in what's the best ergonomic setup for them, whether they work in offices, in manufacturing and assembly, or from their homes. If empowered workers can make manufacturing processes more efficient and more competitive, why can't they do the same for ergonomics?

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