One of the fastest growing workplaces today is the home office. Examples of home-based businesses abound. Consider Rainforest Cafe, founded by Steven Schussler in 1994. Since Mr. Schussler was short on cash, the prototype of the cafe was built at his home in Minneapolis. Rainforest Cafe now has more than 25 international locations and is a publicly traded $300-million-plus operation.

In 1997, 6.1 million people worked full-time in home-based businesses, according to the Small Business Administration. Current estimates put the number closer to 7.4 million. When part-time workers are included, such as telecommuters, the number of people who work at home today climbs to about 15.7 million.

Who protects these at-home workers? What about their safety? OSHA is too strapped for time and resources to be of any significant help. Public services such as fire and police departments are mostly reactive. Consultants are probably too expensive. Large companies may provide some help for their telecommuters. My guess, however, is that most of the millions of people who work at home do not benefit from any professional safety help.

Illusion of safety

It's easy to believe that the hazards and risks of a home-based business are less than what you'd find at other workplaces. But when you sift through the facts you can find that the hazards are just as great, and maybe even greater, than any corporate office or workplace. When I read about the startup of Rainforest Cafe in a home, my safety concerns peaked. The prototype for the cafe required 40 tropical birds, two tortoises, a baboon, 20 sound systems, fog and mist machines, and 3,000 extension cords. I'd say that hazards were abundant.

Any home office or home-based business probably has ergonomic concerns to deal with. Security, especially for people who work alone at home and may have to see clients, is an important issue. Fire, trips and falls, electrical hazards, emergencies, and even indoor air quality are all concerns that should be addressed.

Let's summarize the dilemma we have here:

  • There is a growing worker population that individually is too small to be helped but collectively too large to ignore.
  • These workers may not want any help ("A man's home is his castle") and they're in a position many times to refuse help.
  • We don't know if they need help because "workplace" injury and illness numbers for home-based employees are scant or nonexistent.

    Who cares?

    Insurance and finance companies, employers of telecommuters, vendors of home-based business equipment, professional safety societies, and individual safety professionals should all be concerned about the safety issues of home-based businesses. But in most cases the responsibility will come down to the individual who works at home.

    Surveys tell us that people who work at home relish this opportunity because it allows them to be more independent and to be their own boss. But this freedom must be approached with a business mind-set. Let me provide a rough analogy: If you ride a bike for personal pleasure, you may choose to not wear a helmet. If you ride a bike for business, wear a helmet.

    So what can you do as a safety specialist to help these folks working from home? Your impact is greater than you might think. Most people who work at home have experience in typical workplaces and factories. Whether they value safety largely comes from what they may have heard or learned from people like you.

    If employees are taught that safety regulations and guidelines are good business practices, and not something that has to be done "because we're required to do it," then they will be more likely to follow safety precautions if and when they work at home.

    Consider safety messages that you may also pass along to your neighbors. Remember, about 12 percent of all U.S. households contain at least one home-based worker. That's one out of ten homes in your neighborhood. What have you told your neighbors lately about working safely? More important, do they see you acting safely?

    I've struggled with ideas of how to improve safety for this large and growing worker population. It wasn't until I realized that we're talking about our neighbors, friends, and people we meet every day that it struck me. If we simply continue to present to people we meet everywhere that good safety practices are good business practices, we'll go a long way toward making working at home safer.

    By Dan Markiewicz, MS, CIH, CSP, CHMM. Dan is an independent environmental health and safety consultant. He can be reached at (419) 382-0132, or by email at