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Unsafe work conditions and the right to refuse to do certain jobs

A common fear among workers in California is that they will be at risk for losing their jobs if they report unsafe work conditions or refuse to work under them. It is important for workers to understand their rights to protect themselves and to know that employers cannot fire them for refusing to take part in hazardous work. There are laws that will protect employees from a wrongful discharge in these circumstances. If they have been violated, it could be the basis to a legal filing to be compensated.

After a worker has complained with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OHSA) about hazardous work conditions, he or she also has the right to refuse to do the work associated with it. Based on the law, the employer is not allowed to penalize a worker for this refusal provided the following are true: the performance of the work would be in violation of the Cal/OSHA regulations for health or safety, the violation would create what is known as a “real and apparent hazard” to the person and his or her coworkers.

Once these conditions have been found to be in place, the worker can refuse to do the work. Prior to doing so, the worker should: inform the supervisor and ask that it be rectified; say that he or she is willing to work if the issue is fixed or other work that is deemed to be safe is assigned; say that there is a health or safety regulation that is violated; and inform the shop steward of the union of the problem.

The employer cannot make threats, demote the worker, or issue a suspension for reporting potential hazards. If there is an attempt to do any of these, the employer will be vulnerable to punishment from the authorities of the state. In addition, if this happens, the worker will also have the right to pursue a legal filing. Speaking to an attorney experienced with employment law and cases involving unsafe work conditions can help to pursue compensation in a legal filing.

Source: dir.ca.gov, “Health & Safety Rights: Facts for California Workers — Right to Refuse Hazardous Work; Protection Against Retaliation,” accessed on Nov. 8, 2016


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