If you simply refused to perform your duties on the jobsite, what would happen? More than likely, your boss would tell you to hit the road. However, there are a few rare cases when you not only have the right to refuse to work, but you're actually protected by the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) to do so.
Refusing unsafe work
You have the right to refuse to perform unsafe work if you believe that you are at risk of being injured or killed. However, as with any other work issue, it's important to follow the proper procedures.
According to OSHA, "If a health or safety hazard at your workplace puts you in imminent danger of death or a serious injury including situations immediately dangerous to life and health, tell your supervisor immediately. Ask that the condition be corrected and that no workers be exposed to the danger until it is eliminated or controlled."
In other words, the first step you should take is to ask your supervisor to correct the dangerous situation. If your employer fails to fix the problem, call the nearest OSHA office immediately. Give them all the specific details of your situation. If you report the problem as one of "imminent danger," OSHA will give it the highest priority and send an inspector to your jobsite with in one day.
What if your employer threatens to fire you?
Of course, if you refuse to work, your employer may decide to fire or discipline you before the OSHA inspector arrives on the jobsite. Fortunately, OSHA covers workers who are disciplined for refusing to perform unsafe work.
According to OSHA law, "OSHA can protect you if you are discharged or otherwise disciplined for refusing to perform a task that would expose you to imminent danger of death or serious injury, providing you have sought and been unable to obtain a remedy from your supervisor and there is insufficient time to have the condition corrected through filing a complaint with OSHA."
If you refuse the dangerous work on behalf of your fellow workers, you may also be protected by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). OSHA and the NLRB often work jointly on refusal-to-work cases involving dangerous situations. If you are punished for refusing to perform an unsafe job, contact one of these agencies as soon as possible.
Danger must be imminent
However, before you refuse to work, you must be certain that the work poses imminent danger to you and your co-workers. In other words, you have to be able to prove that the problem could cause immediate and serious harm to you or other employees.
For example, let's say you've been working with a damaged piece of machinery for three weeks. Although you haven't gotten injured, you have asked your supervisor multiple times to repair the machine. One day, you get tired of asking and refuse to work.
Unfortunately, in this case, OSHA may not be able to protect you. After all, you've been working with this piece of machinery for many weeks without getting hurt. This will make it difficult for you to prove that danger is imminent. However, if you had refused to work as soon as the machine was damaged, it may be a different story.
On the other hand, let's say someone spills hazardous chemicals in your work area. You report the spill to your supervisor immediately and ask him to call in professionals to clean it up. He says he'll get to it later and tells you to get back to work. Because this puts you and your co-workers in immediate, serious danger, you can refuse to work near the hazardous chemicals. In this scenario, OSHA would likely protect you if your employer tried to punish you for not working.
Team up with other workers
If you feel that you and your fellow workers face imminent danger on the jobsite, don't go at it alone. Try to get your co-workers on board and approach your supervisor together. OSHA points out that acting as a group is safer when it comes to refusing unsafe work.