The Occupational Safety and Health Administration put a temporary scare into companies that rely on telecommuters when it issued an advisory in January.
That advisory indicated that companies could be liable for wiring defects and ergonomics- related injuries in their telecommuting- employees' homes. After a brief political uproar, the agency reversed itself. But the episode has raised important issues, as the number of people working from home pushes past 20 million and more workers are negotiating for such privileges.
It turns out safety is one of the areas in which companies can breathe easy, according to Gail Martin, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based International Telework Association and Council. "They [teleworkers] don't have trivial claims, because they want to work at home," Martin says. "Nobody is forced to telework." However, she adds, it is imperative for companies to formalize telework policies and train managers in handling "invisible" employees.
"The real roadblock is managerial--the 'if - I - can't - see - you - I - can't - command - you' thinking," says Burke Stinson, a spokesman at AT&T Corp. Twenty-five percent of AT&T's managers now work from home, and the company is investigating how it can make the option feasible for more of its staff.
Stinson says he is not aware of any home- office accidents in the eight years of the program. Not only is telecommuting convenient and relatively safe, it also benefits the bottom line. AT&T saves $25 million to $26 million per year in real estate and operational costs, and incurs no significant expense to provide the program, according to Stinson.