Every day, all over the world, employers delegate work to their employees. Managers relay the tasks to be completed, and the workers complete these tasks. No doubt, you’ve experienced this chain of events in your own workplace. What happens, though, when the task you have been asked to complete is unsafe? Most of us know or have been told that we, as workers, have the right to refuse unsafe work, but has anyone you know actually done so?

Refusing work seems like it might lead to confrontation, which most workers try to avoid. But being able to recognize and refuse unsafe work is not only your right as a worker, but also your responsibility.

Employer Responsibilities

When it comes to unsafe work, it is important to remember that your first point of contact is your employer. If notified of a hazard, most employers will correct the situation. Under the OSHA Act of 1970, your employer has certain responsibilities. These responsibilities include providing employees with a healthful and safe environment that is free of recognized hazards. This environment must also follow and adhere to OSHA regulations and standards. Employers have numerous responsibilities with regard to employees, some of which include:

  • Provide employees with safe tools and equipment, which they also must maintain
  • Employers must use color codes and symbols to communicate hazards with employees
  • Establish operation procedures, which employees are updated on by the employer so that employees may follow appropriate health and safety requirements
  • Provide training for employees in a language and vocabulary that they understand
  • Keep records of work-related illnesses and injuries
  • Report any fatal accident or accident that resulted in the hospitalization of three or more employees within 8 hours to the nearest OSHA office

Know Your Rights

Under OSHA, workers have specific rights, which include:

  • Workers may request information from their employer about OSHA standards, worker illnesses and injuries, worker’s rights, and job hazards. This includes employer records documenting any occupational illnesses and injuries, and any relevant exposure and medical records that are required to be maintained. Within 15 days of a request being made, employers are required to provide information to the worker or his or her designated representative
  • Workers may request that your employer take actions to protect you from known hazards or correct OSHA violations. It is recommended that employees keep copies of all requests made, or any other correspondence with an employer to correct hazards
  • Workers may file a complaint against an employer through OSHA. Workers also have a right to confidentiality with regards to the complaint
  • Workers have the right to receive employer provided training appropriate to the type of work. Necessary employee training might also be specified and required by OSHA depending on the scope of work
  • Workers have the right to be involved in workplace safety inspections completed by OSHA. Workers have the right to communicate privately and confidentially with an OSHA representative or compliance officer. This right is coupled with the right to have a union representative present during the inspection. During an inspection, a worker is permitted to bring hazards to the attention of the officer and also to describe injuries, illnesses, or near misses that occurred as a direct result of the hazards. It is also permitted that the worker point out any conditions in the workplace that are atypical or different from normal working conditions. This might include equipment shut down, opened windows, etc.
  • Workers have the right to be provided with the results of an OSHA inspection. An employee representative will be contacted by OSHA and be provided with a record of compliance or non-compliance following an inspection. The OSHA inspector will also inform the employee representative of the efforts the employer has taken to protect the employees from known hazards
  • Workers have the right to participate in meetings during which the employer may disagree or object to OSHA citations or changes in abatement deadlines
  • Workers may file a formal appeal of deadlines for the employer’s correction of hazards
  • Workers may request a research investigation to review the workplace for possible health hazards. To request a health hazard evaluation to investigate the toxic effects of a substance, contact the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)
  • Workers are entitled to provide comments and testimony to OSHA during the formation of new standards or rule making

Employee Responsibilities

Though employees are entitled to certain rights within the workplace, workers also have several responsibilities. According to OSHA, employees must comply with all health and safety standards applicable to their jobs. Responsibilities of the employee include:

  • To read and understand the OSHA health and safety poster in his or her workplace
  • Follow the health and safety rules outlined by the employer for the wear and use of required personal protective equipment
  • Follow the safe work procedures outlined by the employer
  • Report any unsafe or hazardous conditions to a supervisor or designated safety official
  • In the event that an employer does not correct hazardous conditions once reported, it is the responsibility of the worker to contact OSHA

Refusing Work and Filing a Complaint

If you have reason to believe that your workplace is hazardous to employee health and wellbeing, it is recommended that you bring the concern to the attention of the employer first. Employers may feel the need to contact OSHA in an effort to learn about how to improve the working conditions or remove hazards. If it is believed that the workplace is unsafe, employees have the right to file a complaint with OSHA at any time. Though a complaint may have been filed, the worker must remain at the workplace. Employees have a legal right to refuse work under the condition that there is reason to believe that a hazard, which he or she might be exposed to, poses serious and imminent risks, like death and physical harm, and there is insufficient time for OSHA to inspect.


Complaints may be filed with OSHA if an employee believes that there is a violation of an OSHA standard or a serious health or safety hazard in the workplace. A complaint maybe made by telephone, online, or in person at an OSHA office. For more information about filing a complaint, or to speak to an OSHA compliance officer about a hazard or violation, call the OSHA office in your area.

Imminent Danger

To report an imminent danger, call (800) 321-OSHA. An imminent danger is defined by OSHA in Section 13(a) of the OSHA Act of 1970 as "any conditions or practices in any place of employment which are such that a danger exists which could reasonably be expected to cause death or serious physical harm immediately or before the imminence of such danger can be eliminated through the enforcement procedures otherwise provided by this Act."

Before a hazard can be classified as imminent, the following criteria must be met:

  • A serious threat of death or bodily harm must be present. Serious physical harm is classified as physical damage whereby the part of the body that is injured cannot be used or used well
  • If a health hazard is suspected, there must be reasonable expectation that toxic substances are present, and that the harm caused by the exposure to the hazard will shorten life expectancy or cause a substantial reduction in physical or mental efficiency. It should be noted that the effects of the health hazard may not be apparent immediately for it to be considered a health hazard
  • The threat must be immediate or imminent. It must be thought that death or serious physical harm could occur within a short period of time
  • If OSHA finds an that an imminent danger does exist, the inspector must make the threat known to the employees and the employer. The inspector must inform the appropriate parties that OSHA ought to take steps to stop the imminent danger. In the event that an employer does not comply with OSHA recommendations to remove the imminent danger, OSHA has the right to request a federal court order for the removal of the hazard

Refusing Work

Typically, refusal of work is not normally a right extended by the OSHA Act. However, there are certain situations in which an employee who believes in "Good Faith" that an imminent danger exists may refuse work and be covered under OSHA. Refusing to do work may result in disciplinary action by the employer, though, if the refusal is in Good Faith, an employee has a right to refuse work. Good Faith means that the employee genuinely believes, and has reasonable grounds to believe, that they are exposed to an imminent danger.

An employee does not have the right to walk off the jobsite after refusing unsafe work. OSHA may not be able to protect the employee if he or she leaves the worksite and the employer fires him or her. It is recommended that the employee stay on the jobsite until such a time that the employer requests that the employee leave.

If all of the conditions are met, the employee’s rights to refuse work are protected. The conditions are as follows:

  • The worker reported the hazard to the employer, and the employer refused or failed to correct the hazard
  • The work was refused in Good Faith. Refusal must not be a disguised attempt to harass and employer
  • A reasonable individual would agree that there is a danger or serious risk of death or bodily harm
  • The danger is so urgent that there is not sufficient time to have the hazard corrected through regular methods, like requesting an OSHA inspection

Many employees may feel that they will be discriminated against, or disciplined for refusing to work in unsafe conditions. The OSHA Act and other laws have been put in place to protect those that refuse unsafe work or unhealthful conditions. Whistleblower protection programs are available through OSHA. Protection under the law includes the disallowance of employee transfer, raise refusal, reduction of hours, or being fired.

Remember, it's not just you out there. If you know of an unsafe condition, don't be afraid to report it, as it effects you as well as your coworkers. Know your rights and speak up!