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Can you refuse to do dangerous work on the clock?

When your employer asks you to do a job that is clearly very dangerous, do you feel trapped? Do you have to do it? If you refuse, will you get fired? How can you protect yourself?

Maybe they ask you to go up to a high catwalk to get something down, for instance, but there is no rail. It broke a couple of months ago and no one replaced it. You don’t have a tether, a harness or any other safety gear. A fall means a drop of 25 feet to the warehouse floor. Your boss just smiles and makes a quip about how you should be careful and you better not fall. Now what?

Bringing it to their attention

In the above example, you did bring the issue to your boss’s attention, and they didn’t take it seriously. That’s still wise that you mentioned it. That’s always the first step to take. It could be that someone just overlooked the danger. Tell them that you don’t feel safe, explain why you feel that way, and give them a chance to fix it. In many cases, they will, and that’s the end of the issue.

Since you’re on the clock, you can simply tell them that you’re happy to do the job if they’ll eliminate the risk. They may not be thrilled, but they’ll give you the right safety gear and make it so that the fall is impossible. Don’t leave. Stay at the job site and try to find a solution.

What if it fails?

Of course, what you really want to know is if you can refuse to do the job if your efforts to correct the problem fail. Maybe your boss just rolls their eyes and tells you to do what they asked or find a new job. Do you have to do so?

You don’t, at least not when these conditions get met:

  • You told the employer about the issue, asked for them to take proper safety measures, and they failed to do it.
  • You made your complaints in good faith. This is not just an effort to get out of work. You do think you face imminent danger.
  • If a reasonable person had to weigh in, they would take your side, saying they can see the risk of serious injury or death. It’s not your own irrational fear making you say these things.
  • You cannot have the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) carry out an inspection in time. You face that risk at the moment, and you can’t wait.

Meeting these conditions means you can refuse to work. It’s your right. If you then get fired or someone forces you to do the job and you get injured, you have to know what legal options you have.

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