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OSHA Says Companies Not Liable for Telecommuters

After weeks of confusion and criticism looming around an OSHA directive concerning telecommuting employees, the agency is now saying companies are not responsible for the safety of their at-home workers.

OSHA will issue a formal policy directive saying that it will not hold companies responsible for the safety of telecommuting employees' home offices, the Clinton Administration told Congress.

This directive would not include workers who perform more hazardous types of at-home jobs, such as manufacturing piecework involving dangerous materials.

Those workers are protected by federal safety laws, the administration said.

"The bottom line is, and it has always been, that OSHA will respect the privacy of the home and expects that employers will as well," said OSHA Administrator Charles N. Jeffress in remarks prepared for congressional hearings scheduled this week.

Earlier this month, OSHA rescinded an advisory letter telling a Texas employer he was legally responsible for the safety of his telecommuters because the letter caused widespread confusion and criticism.

As a result, Republicans in the House and Senate promised an investigation.

Jeffress's statements have not been made publicly because scheduled hearing in the House and Senate were postponed because of the severe snowstorm that hit the nation's capital this week.

However, Jeffress delivered the message to Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wy., in a private meeting on Wednesday.

Enzi, a subcommittee chairman of the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee, was scheduled to chair the first hearing on the telecommuting policy.

In a written statement, Enzi said, he was "pleased" with the outcome of the meeting.

"OSHA has assured me and other members of the committee that it will continue its practice of not holding employers liable in home offices and not inspecting home offices as a formal policy," said Enzi.

This may, however, not be the end of the intense scrutiny of the policy.

The senator said he would not rule out the need for legislative action to clarify the matter until after the OSHA issues a formal directive that Jeffress promised would be ready soon.

In his prepared statement, Jeffress said it is the administration's position that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act does not apply to employees' homes or furnishings.

He said the government would not hold employers liable for work activities in home offices, inspect home offices or expect employers to inspect them.

Risky at-home work sites are only inspected if OSHA receives a complaint or referral, said Jeffress.

Regardless of their legal obligations to employees, Jeffress said the 20 percent of employers who, because of their size or industry, are required to report-on-the-job injuries or illnesses to the government, must continue to do so.

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