Can I walk off the job if my employer won't fix a safety problem?

Question:

I work in an enclosed warehouse. For the past week, the circulation system that takes the exhaust and fumes out of the workspace has not been working regularly. The air quality in the warehouse has gotten pretty bad; my coworkers and I have watery eyes and have been coughing more than usual. We can open several large cargo doors to try to get rid of the polluted air, but that leaves us pretty cold in the early part of the shift. We've asked our manager to fix the problem, but he said the soonest the HVAC company can come in to make repairs is next week. Do we have the right to walk off the job and refuse to work?

Answer:

Most likely, no. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) and similar state laws give employees the right to refuse work only in very limited and extreme circumstances. While your situation sounds unpleasant and uncomfortable, it probably doesn't rise to the level of urgency the law requires.

Under OSHA, you have the right to refuse work only if all of the following are true:

  • There is a real danger of death or serious injury if you keep working.
  • The situation is so hazardous and urgent that there isn't enough time to try to correct it by filing a complaint with OSHA or requesting an inspection.
  • Where possible, you have asked your employer to correct the problem, and your employer has refused.
  • You are acting in good faith, which means that you truly believe that you're facing imminent serious danger if you continue to work.

Even if all of these criteria are met, you must remain at the worksite after telling your employer that you refuse to work because of the hazard. Your employer can choose to assign you to different work or have you wait at the workplace while the problem is being fixed.

You have told your employer about the problem, and your employer has scheduled repairs for next week. If you wish, you could file a complaint with OSHA, too. However, it sounds like the repairs will likely be made well before any inspection or other follow-up could take place. In this situation, you've probably done what you can do, for now. If the repairs don't happen on schedule, however, it might be time to consider contacting OSHA. But, unless there's a real risk of death or serious danger to your health, you still won't have the option of refusing to work.

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