Do You Have a Right to Refuse to Work in an Unsafe Workplace?
All employers, regardless of industry, are required to provide a workplace for their employees that is free of excessive danger. Although some industries come with some inherent hazards, such as construction, there’s no excuse for workplaces to be needlessly dangerous. If you believe your workplace is unsafe and something poses an imminent danger, you do have a right to refuse work if certain criteria are met.
If you believe something in your workplace presents a serious danger, the first thing you have to do is bring it to the attention of your supervisor, manager, or employer so they can have an opportunity to address the issue. In some cases, your employer might not be aware there is a problem so you bringing the issue to their attention might be all it takes to get it taken care of. But if your employer knows about the hazard and has refused to do anything about it, you could have the right to refuse to work if the other criteria are met.
Secondly, the hazard you are disputing also has to be something that you believe in “good faith” to be an imminent danger. By “good faith,” OSHA means the hazard has to be something you honestly and genuinely believe poses an imminent danger. And to be considered an “imminent danger,” the hazard must pose an imminent risk to a person’s health or safety. Even if it turns out the potential hazard isn’t actually imminent danger, it has to be something you were reasonable in believing it could potentially be dangerous. The hazard also has to be something a reasonable person would agree could potentially cause someone to be seriously injured or killed.
Lastly, the hazard has to be something that is so imminently dangerous, there isn’t time for it to be reported to an official channel such as OSHA first. Generally, it’s best to request an official inspection from OSHA if there’s a danger in your workplace and your employer refuses to fix it. But filing a complaint and requesting an inspection takes time and sometimes, the hazard is too dangerous to wait for an inspection. If this is the case, and if all the previous criteria have been met, then you do have the right to refuse to work.
If you are in a position where you do have the right to refuse work, don’t leave the workplace right away. First, ask your employer to fix the hazard and tell them you won’t perform the task at hand until the issue is taken care of. If they don’t take correct the problem, ask them for another assignment that doesn’t involve coming into contact with the hazard. Do not leave your workplace until your employer orders you to do so.
When you have met all the criteria to legally refuse to work, your employer cannot retaliate against you for exercising that right. Retaliation can include things such as being fired, laid off, transferred, demoted, or having your hours reduced in response to refusing to work. If you suspect you are being retaliated against for refusing to work, you have 30 days from the act of retaliation to file a complaint with OSHA. Simply call 1-800-321-OSHA and ask to be connected to your local office. You don’t have to fill out a form to make a complaint for retaliation, but you do have to call.