The Right Way to Refuse Unsafe Work

By Safeopedia Staff
Last updated: January 29, 2024
Key Takeaways

Every worker has a legal right to refuse unsafe work, but only if certain conditions are met.

Construction workers standing on elevated beams.
Source: Garakta-Studio / Envato Elements

Getting injured isn’t part of your job description.


Sure, accidents happen. No workplace is entirely free of hazards, even if they appear completely safe.

But even if you have a hazardous job that takes you to extreme heights, involves heavy machinery, or brings you in close proximity to industrial chemicals, your safety still matters. There’s a certain amount of risk that’s reasonable and expected while you’re on the job. And then there’s a level of danger that no worker should have to face.


Yet, many people believe they’re required to do unsafe work if their boss or supervisor asks them to. That their only choices are to risk life and limb or risk losing their job.

Thankfully, that’s not the case. Every employee has a legally protected right to refuse work they believe is unsafe.

In this article, we’ll go over your rights as a worker and what to do if you’re asked to do something that puts your safety at risk.

When Can You Refuse Unsafe Work?

First, let’s get one thing out of the way.

You can’t refuse work simply because it would expose you any given hazard. Since no job is 100% safe, you could split hairs and argue that you shouldn’t have to sit at a desk (a bad posture could hurt your lower back), spend your day in an office (you could catch a cold from a coworker), or carry anything (after all, slips and trips are among the most common workplace injuries).


I mean, yes, you could refuse to do your job on those grounds. You just won’t have any legal protection if you happen to lose your employment as a result.

Some risks come with the job and there’s really no way around that.

The right to refuse only really kicks in when the danger is excessive, unreasonable, or your employer hasn’t taken enough steps to ensure your safety.

That’s a bit too vague, though. To get more precision and clarity, let’s look at OSHA’s criteria for refusing dangerous work.

OSHA’s Four Criteria for Refusing Unsafe Work

According to OSHA, you have the right to refuse work that you believe is unsafe if all of the following conditions apply:

  1. You requested that your employer deal with the unsafe working conditions and they haven’t
  2. You really do believe the work is dangerous (you are refusing in good faith)
  3. A reasonable person would also deem the work to pose a real danger of serious injury or death
  4. There isn’t enough time to wait for OSHA or another regulatory agency to deal with the situation

Criteria 1 and 4 basically mean that you’ve gone through all the proper channels first. Instead of simply refusing to work, you’ve brought the issue to your boss and, if needed, notified OSHA so they can conduct an inspection and take action.

Criteria 2 and 3 are about determining whether the working conditions were actually dangerous to begin with. Specifically, that you sincerely believed that you would be taking an unreasonable risk by carrying out your work as instructed, and that most people would probably agree.

What Does It Mean to Refuse Work in “Good Faith”?

Of those four conditions, refusing work in “good faith” can be the most difficult to establish.

In this case, good faith simply means that you genuinely believed that doing your job would have put you at undue risk. It’s meant to rule out anyone trying to invoke their right to refuse unsafe work simply because they don’t feel like doing their job, want to spite their supervisor, or have some other ulterior motive.

Unlike requesting an OSHA inspection, there isn’t a clear and definite paper trail you can use to prove you acted in good faith. There are, however, actions you can take that could then be used as evidence that your refusal to work was sincere, such as:

  • Clearly and directly telling your supervisor or employer about the hazardous conditions
  • Notifying your employer that you don’t feel comfortable working until the hazards have been controlled (rather than stopping work without telling anyone)
  • Remaining at work for the entire duration of your shift, unless dismissed by your supervisor
  • Agreeing to a safe alternative work assignment while the issue is being dealt with
  • Contacting OSHA if the hazard isn’t addressed immediately

How you approach your refusal to work matters. If the court determines that you refused work in bad faith, you won’t be given the same legal protections you would otherwise be afforded. This means you won’t have any recourse if your employment is terminated or you are reprimanded as a result of not doing your job.


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Steps for Refusing Unsafe Work

  1. Request safety measures. Tell your supervisor or employer about the hazard that is giving you pause and ask them to eliminate it, implement control measures, or provide you with the PPE or equipment needed to do your job safely.
  2. Notify your superior that you will not put yourself at risk. Let your supervisor, manager, or employer know that you will not be doing the job until it can be done safely.
  3. Stay on site. Even if you won’t be doing your work, stay on the worksite until the end of your or until your supervisor tells you that you can leave.
  4. Ask for work you can do in the meantime. If you can’t do your job and the fixing the safety issue will take more than a few minutes, ask your supervisor or manager if there’s any work you should do instead. They might ask you to focus on another part of your job, do some housekeeping tasks, or find a post you can fill in the meantime.
  5. If your employer isn’t doing enough to make your job safe, file a complaint with OSHA. If you don’t have time to wait, call them instead so you get them involved as quickly as possible.

After You Refuse Unsafe Work

Your employer is barred from retaliating against you on the basis of your decision to refuse unsafe work. However, they are not obligated to pay you for any work you miss as a result of exercising this right.

The only possible exception to this is a collective agreement. If you’re part of a union that has negotiated a contract that explicitly guarantees wages for missed work due to unsafe conditions, then you’ll be entitled to that compensation. Otherwise, it’s up to your employer’s discretion.

If you are reprimanded, treated unfairly, or fired because of your refusal to work in unsafe conditions, contact OSHA by phone (1-800-321-OSHA). You only have 30 days to do so and it’s better to get things moving as soon as possible, so be sure to act promptly.

Put Your Safety First

Your employer has a legal responsibility to create a safe working environment and ensure that every worker has the protection they need. You should never put yourself in danger because they failed to do so (whether willfully or simply because they have overlooked a hazard).

Know your rights, follow the process, and don’t put your safety on the line. Refusing unsafe work can feel awkward or uncomfortable, but it’s a whole lot better than suffering a serious injury – or worse.

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Written by Safeopedia Staff

Safeopedia Staff

At Safeopedia, we think safety professionals are unsung superheroes in many workplaces. We aim to support and celebrate these professionals and the work they do by providing easy access to occupational health and safety information, and by reinforcing safe work practices.

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