Waking up and going to work is a fact of life for just about everyone in the United States. We are assured that our workplaces should be safe by federal and state law, but unfortunately, some workplaces fail to live up to these obligations. Accidents can happen and even work-related deaths can occur as a result.
What can an employee do if they notice a dangerous, and potentially deadly work condition?
Report, report, report
First and foremost, workers should report the hazardous condition to a supervisor immediately. Since employers have a duty to maintain a safe and healthy work environment, this will usually solve the problem. The first notice to a supervisor should (and often is) enough to make a workplace safe. This is not always the case, however. If reporting to a supervisor does not solve the problem, the worker can file a complaint with the local office of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA. They will conduct an inspection and mandate mitigation of the hazardous condition.
What if the hazardous condition persists?
Remember, do not stop work or refuse to work simply because an OSHA complaint has been filed. The filing itself, while needed in broad terms of hazard mitigation, does not, in itself, give employees the right to stop work. However, a worker is not mandated to continue work at the risk of their own death or at the risk of serious physical harm. This is why, if that kind of hazardous condition exists, and there is no time for OSHA to inspect, an employee is given a legal right to refuse to work (this right is separate from any union contract).
The right to refuse to work
To exercise one’s right to refuse to work, there are some basic guidelines to follow. First, as long as it is possible and practical, the employee must ask the employer to mitigate the danger. Second, the employer must have failed to so mitigate. Third, the employee’s refusal to work must be in good faith, which means that the worker must genuinely believe the hazard is an imminent danger and a reasonable person would agree that it presents a danger of serious injury or death. Finally, there must not be enough time for normal regulatory enforcement channels to work, like an OSHA inspection. If all of these conditions exist, then employees can exercise their right to work refusal.
In practical terms, what does that mean?
For New York residents who are concerned about work-related accidents, this may be confusing. And, that is okay. Perhaps, a call to an attorney or state regulator would clear up confusion. The key takeaway is that no one has to work if they fear for their life.