When do workers have the right to refuse to work?
According to most occupational health and safety acts in the U.S., Canada and other countries, workers have the right to refuse work when they feel a workplace is unsafe to themselves or to another worker. This includes physical dangers that are not normal for the occupation or activity, and workplace violence. The refusal must follow the specific steps laid out in the act (read more in How to Refuse Unsafe Work).
All workers are covered under these statutes, however specific limitations are applied to those working in policing, firefighting, correctional services, and certain types of healthcare (learn more in What Every Young Worker Needs to Know to Stay Safe in the Working World).
Conditions for Refusal to Work
According to OSHA, “Your right to refuse to do a task is protected if all of the following conditions are met:
- Where possible, you have asked the employer to eliminate the danger, and the employer failed to do so; and
- You refused to work in "good faith." This means that you must genuinely believe that an imminent danger exists; and
- A reasonable person would agree that there is a real danger of death or serious injury; and
- There isn't enough time, due to the urgency of the hazard, to get it corrected through regular enforcement channels, such as requesting an OSHA inspection.”
Stages of Refusal
There are two stages of refusal, First and Second.
- During First Stage Refusal, the worker stays nearby and must be ready to answer questions while the employer, supervisor or trained representative investigates the situation.
- A Second Stage Refusal occurs when an employee continues to believe the threat exists, even after an investigation has occurred. In this case external inspectors from a State or Ministry board must investigate.
What Happens Next
Typically, employees continue to be paid during a first stage refusal, and employers are forbidden to penalize or suspend them. Other workers may be assigned to the dangerous task, but they must be informed of the danger and of the fact that another worker has refused the work.
When any refusal of work occurs, written records must be kept of all steps in the refusal, investigation, and subsequent actions. The employee must receive a copy of all these written records.
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