Too often, when workers encounter a dangerous work situation, they have a tough choice to make: They can either do work they know to be dangerous or risk losing their job. Especially in low-wage industries, areas with high unemployment, or worksites with a weak health and safety culture, workers considering whether to ask their employers to address hazards often worry that they are putting themselves at risk of being fired or suffering other forms of retaliation. To make matters worse, workers know that any dangerous assignment they refuse will likely be passed on to a fellow worker instead.
Federal OSHA regulations provide a limited right to refuse dangerous work. Workers are not covered unless they have a “reasonable” belief that (1) the working conditions pose a real danger of death or serious injury, and (2) there is no time to get dangerous conditions fixed by calling in a Fed-OSHA inspector. In the real world, however, experience has shown that these conditions are nearly impossible to satisfy, so the regulations provide little meaningful protection. Very few states have right-to-refuse laws, and those that exist could be improved to ensure a meaningful right to refuse dangerous work.
What's the Solution?
Legislatures in all states can adopt a law that protects workers’ right to refuse dangerous assignments or tasks until the identified hazards have been corrected. Ultimately, the law would give workers the power to compel their employers to fix dangerous conditions that could cause injury, illness, or death.
Unions can also establish right-to-refuse procedures through collective bargaining agreements, although statewide protections for all workers are a more protective solution.
Workers should have a right-to-refuse work whenever they have a “good faith,” or sincere belief that a task or assignment violates a law, standard, regulation, or “clear mandate of public policy” (including those related to OHS matters), or otherwise amounts to a criminal act. Additionally, a strong right-to-refuse law would apply broadly to all workers, require employers to notify workers of their right to refuse dangerous work, and authorize workers to sue their employers in court if they experience retaliation for exercising their right to refuse.
Benefits of Right-to-Refuse Laws. Providing workers a right to refuse dangerous work empowers them to ensure hazards are fixed before harm occurs. Although employers often claim that these laws allow workers to harass their bosses and shirk their assigned duties, a study of Ontario’s strong right-to-refuse law found no such evidence. To the contrary, researchers found that workers most frequently use this right to refuse dangerous work in workplaces with poor labor relations.
Model Laws. Advocates interested in a strong right-to-refuse law that relies on health and safety committees to investigate and filter out potentially invalid claims should review Ontario’s right-to-refuse law. This approach would provide broad protections and could include clear procedures for workers to exercise their right to refuse. However, in states that don’t already require health and safety committees, advocates would have to take on that reform effort first or simultaneously with their efforts for a strong right-to-refuse law. For advocates who want to campaign for a strong law that does not rely on health and safety committees, New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) provides a good model.