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House Rules

Before you let your people work at home, find out what you're liable for--and cover your bases.

This story appears in the July 2004 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Twenty million Americans avoid traffic and water cooler gossip several days a week, choosing instead to do their work at home. Armed with a computer, phone and fax, they find there's no need to be present at the office every day. Indeed, contrary to the image of telecommuters in pajamas catching up on the soaps, many employers find that telecommuting employees are not only happier, but also more efficient and productive.

If some of your employees work from home or you're thinking of allowing such an arrangement, be sure your discussions include issues of safety and liability. On the one hand, after a media firestorm in January 2000, the U.S. Labor Department withdrew an advisory letter claiming that, under OSHA, employers were responsible for the safety of all work environments, including the home. "We believe that the Occupational Safety and Health Act does not apply to an employee's house or furnishings," said Charles Jeffress, then assistant secretary of labor, in Congressional testimony. "OSHA will not hold employers liable for work activities in employees' home offices." Nor will OSHA be out inspecting home offices, unless there's been a severe injury or death related to the telework.

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