02:34 PM ET 01/05/00 Home Work Safety Rules Withdrawn WASHINGTON (AP) _ Facing a barrage of criticism, Labor Secretary Alexis Herman today withdrew a federal interpretation letter saying that companies' normal workplace safety obligations also apply to employees who do their work at home. She said an advisory drafted by departmental officials was informal and was not intended to be taken as a statement of policy for the entire business community. ``It was a letter to one employer. It provided guidance to him on his employees working at home,'' she said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. ``The letter, however, caused widespread confusion and unintended consequences for others. And therefore, as a result of those unintended consequences, I have made a decision to withdraw the letter today.'' Herman said, however, that the controversy has raised important questions about what protections Americans who work at home can expect from the government. She said she will convene a conference of business and labor leaders and set up an interagency task force to conduct a wide-ranging study of the issue. ``We acknowledge ... that employers are responsible for employee safety and health, but we don't know what that means and how that applies to these new work arrangements in the home today. That is why we need a national dialogue on this subject,'' Herman said. The letter was written by officials at the department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration to a Texas-based credit services company that had sought advice about moving some of its sales executives into home offices. In response, OSHA provided specific examples in an area of law that had remained unclear, even as the number of Americans regularly working at home has swelled to almost 20 million. Such federal agency ``interpretation'' letters to individual companies often are made public, and other businesses look to them for general guidance. This one, dated Nov. 15, was posted on the Labor Department's Internet site. When business groups began to notice, they called attention to it, sparking news reports this week and strong condemnation from Republicans on Capitol Hill. ``Putting home workers in the position of having to comply with thousands of pages of OSHA regulations and making employers responsible for making sure that they do is simply foolish,'' said Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., chairman of a House investigations subcommittee on work force issues. OSHA officials insisted Tuesday there had been no change in government policy and that the agency would take no new action. There will be no government inspections of home offices, they said. However, the firestorm continued today, with Republicans asking the administration to rescind the letter and promising hearings in the House and Senate. Republican leaders had already pledged to scrutinize OSHA after Congress returns from its holiday break because of regulations the agency proposed in November that would require employers to minimize everyday physical _ or ``ergonomic'' _ stresses of certain jobs. Chairman Bill Goodling, R-Pa., of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce has asked the administration to prolong a public comment period required before those regulations could become final. The now-retracted OSHA interpretation of how workplace safety rules apply in the home said that employers could be held liable if they know or should reasonably have known about home workplace hazards _ such as computers that overload home electrical circuits creating a fire hazard, or rickety stairs leading to a basement office. It suggested that companies should train people to set up safe home offices and periodically inspect at-home workers' quarters.