Another Attack on Liberty

We Americans are either stupid, ignorant, complacent, or all three, if we can't see it coming. "Okay, Williams," you say, "what's your gripe this time?" First, let's step back a bit and remember earlier warnings in this column about the nation's lifestyle Nazis, who in the name of health and safety want tobacco prohibition, auto air bags and seatbelt laws, and they want to regulate caffeine in sodas and serving sizes in restaurants. You were warned that tyrants just don't wake up one morning and say they're tired of tyrannizing people. They always seek to expand their control over people, particularly if they encounter little or no resistance.

The Office of Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), an agency within the U.S. Department of Labor, issued a ruling on November 15, 1999 that said, "All employers, including those which have entered into 'work at home' agreements with employees, are responsible for complying with . . . safety and health standards." The ruling, posted on the Labor Department's internet site and now removed, described how an employer could be held liable for home workplace hazards such as computers that overload electrical circuits and create a fire hazard or rickety stairs leading to a basement office. Last week, business and public outrage forced Labor Secretary Alexis Herman to withdraw the ruling. Several congressmen have demanded hearings to examine what Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) calls OSHA's "intrusive scheme."

OSHA mandates many other workplace health and safety requirements such as handicap toilets and drinking fountains, fire sprinkler systems, clean air requirements, and no smoking rules. The question is how would OSHA enforce such regulations in the growing home workplace, where nearly 20 million Americans regularly work at home?

Several possibilities come to mind. OSHA officials could obtain warrants to inspect your home for health and safety violations. If you have clients who visit your home, OSHA might require you to take "reasonable" steps to insure handicapped accessibility. They could slap you with fines for workplace health violations such as allowing someone to smoke indoors. Another compliance possibility is that OSHA might require your boss to make periodic inspections of your home for workplace health and safety violations. Or, OSHA could start a "whistle-blower" program where they'd encourage wives, children, clients and friends to report home workplace health and safety violations.

Nobody should be surprised by the audacity of Department of Labor tyrants. After all we have ceded Washington the right to control our lives in the name of safety, health care costs, and protecting children. There is no logical end to what Washington can do in the name of those goals. By the way, it also should come as no surprise that the very people who want to interfere with and control our lives are the very people who are the strongest advocates of the steady erosion of our Second Amendment guarantees. That way we'd have little recourse to their insidious encroachment, thereby giving them a freer hand.

But there's another possible explanation behind OSHA's home workplace rules. Labor unions might be pushing OSHA. People working at home are more difficult to organize. Work rules such as the number of hours, who can do what job, and whether children are working are more difficult to enforce. Therefore, if OSHA can make the home workplace more costly, fewer people will work at home, and more will work at traditional workplaces where employee organization and control is easier.

Whatever's the case, if we care about our remaining liberties we must at some point draw a line in the sand and let politicians and bureaucrats know we will not tolerate further encroachment on our God-given rights to liberty.

Walter E. Williams
January 7, 2000
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