Employees whose workplaces are covered by the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act), which is administered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), have a limited right to refuse to work. An employee may have the right to refuse to perform a task, and the employer cannot fire the employee for that refusal (the refusal to work) under certain circumstances.
When Does an Employee Have the Right to Refuse to Work or Perform a Task?
Under OSHA law, an employee has the right to refuse to work if, and only if, all of the following conditions are met:
- A real, imminent danger of death or serious injury exists in the workplace. This danger must be one that both the employee as well as a “reasonable person” find is present.
- Where possible, the employee has asked the employer to eliminate the danger.
- The employer has failed to do so.
- Because the employee genuinely (i.e., “in good faith”) believes that an imminent danger of death or serious injury exists, the employee refuses to work. The refusal cannot be a disguised attempt to harass your employer or disrupt business.
- There is not enough time, due to the urgency of the hazard, to get it abated (corrected) through regular enforcement channels – such as by requesting an OSHA worksite inspection.
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What Should Employees Faced With the Danger of Death or Serious Injury Do?
Employees faced with real danger of death or serious injury should take the following steps:
- Ask the employer either to correct the hazard, or to assign the employee other work.
- Advise the employer that the employee will not perform the work unless and until the hazard is corrected; and remain at the worksite until ordered to leave.
- If your employer retaliates against you, such as by terminating your employment, for refusing to perform the dangerous work, contact OSHA immediately. Complaints of retaliation must be made to OSHA within 30 days of the alleged reprisal. To contact OSHA call 1-800-321-OSHA (6742) and ask to be connected to your closest area office. No form is required to file a discrimination complaint, but you must call OSHA.
What Can an Employee Do if the Danger is “Not Imminent”?
If a dangerous condition does not create the risk of imminent danger, the employee should inform the employer of the problem in writing. If the employer fails to remedy the condition, the employee should file a complaint with OSHA or the appropriate state occupational safety agency.
OSHA regulations and many state laws prohibit an employer from retaliating against a worker that reports a violation. This means the employer may not fire, demote, or reduce a worker’s pay because the worker, in good faith, filed a complaint about OSHA unsafe working conditions. A determination of employer retaliation by OSHA can result in the reinstatement of the worker to their former position and an order for compensation for lost wages.