The federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (the OSH Act) and similar state laws spell out your rights in the event of a workplace hazard. How to deal with the unsafe condition depends on how immediate and serious the danger is.
If you think your life is in imminent danger because of a workplace hazard, you have the right to refuse to work. You should immediately call the emergency telephone line of the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (known as OSHA), at 800-321-OSHA (6742). Of course, if you or anyone else at the workplace needs immediate medical attention, call 911.
How do you know if an imminent danger exists? All of the following must be true:
In some states, you have the right to refuse to work even if the harm is not life threatening. To find out about workplace safety laws in your state, contact your state labor department.
If the danger is not imminent, the first thing you should do is ask your employer to take care of the problem. It is possible that your employer doesn't know about the hazard and will deal with the situation promptly. Be sure to document your request -- either by putting it in writing or by making notes for yourself of the date you made the request, the name of the person you spoke to, and a summary of the conversation.
If you are afraid to go to your employer, skip this step and complain directly to OSHA or a similar state agency.
If your employer does nothing -- or takes action against you for complaining about the hazard -- your next step is to complain to OSHA or a similar state agency. For information on how to file an OSHA complaint, including a complaint form you can file online or download and file by fax or mail, see "How to File a Complaint with OSHA" on the OSHA website. You can give your name or make the complaint anonymously.
Both federal and state law prohibit your employer from retaliating against you if you exercise your right to refuse to work or complain about a health and safety violation.
For more information on federal law, visit www.osha.gov. For more information on state law, contact your state labor department.
To learn more about workplace safety, see Your Rights in the Workplace, by Barbara Kate Repa (Nolo).