Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Can I Walk Off the Job for a Safety Problem at Work?

A common question employees often have is what their rights are when they believe their workplace poses a risk to their health and safety.  To be more exact, employees often ask, "may I walk off the job if there is a safety hazard or if my employer won't fix a safety issue?"  The short answer is: in relatively rare circumstances.

The  Occupational Safety and Health Act ("OSHA") is the main federal law regulating workplace safety. OSHA gives you as an employee the right to have a safe and hazard free workplace.  OHSA also states when an employee may walk off the job.  There must be "imminent danger":
There must be a threat of death or serious physical harm. "Serious physical harm" means that a part of the body is damaged so severely that it cannot be used or cannot be used very well.
For a health hazard there must be a reasonable expectation that toxic substances or other health hazards are present and exposure to them will shorten life or cause substantial reduction in physical or mental efficiency. The harm caused by the health hazard does not have to happen immediately.
The threat must be immediate or imminent. This means that you must believe that death or serious physical harm could occur within a short time, for example before OSHA could investigate the problem.
If an OSHA inspector believes that an imminent danger exists, the inspector must inform affected employees and the employer that he is recommending that OSHA take steps to stop the imminent danger.
OSHA has the right to ask a federal court to order the employer to eliminate the imminent danger.
Walking off the job should only be done if there is no other reasonable alternative and if your safety is in serious and immediate danger. In addition, you should call OSHA as soon as possible to report imminent dangers at 800-321-OSHA (6742).

Even if there is "imminent danger" and one or more of the above-mentioned conditions are present, you still must remain at the work site to be assigned to other work or wait for the problem to be fixed.  Going home or completely leaving the workplace could subject yourself to a legitimate termination. 

Employees may also want to consider filing a complaint with OSHA and are protected against retaliation from their employer if they do file a complaint.  Employees may also be covered by the National Labor Relations Act ("NLRA"), even if they are not part of a union, if they engage in concerted protected activity such as:
  • Two or more employees addressing their employer about improving their pay.
  • Two or more employees discussing work-related issues beyond pay, such as safety concerns, with each other.
  • An employee speaking to an employer on behalf of one or more co-workers about improving workplace conditions.

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