According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), about 5,000 people die due to work accidents and injuries every year; a further 50,000 die due to exposure to dangerous substances (think asbestos). Furthermore, four million people suffer on the job injuries. With all of these stark numbers, the question becomes "can you refuse to work in an unsafe environment?" This post will go over your right to safety.
The Occupational Safety and Health Act requires employers to take reasonable steps to prevent worker injuries due to dangerous conditions. The purpose of the Act is to compel employers to shield workers from recognized dangers that are causing or likely to cause serious physical harm to workers.
The Act, while mandating a safe work environment, does not grant you the right to refuse to work. The only time you can refuse the job is if you have a good faith belief that you or your co-workers are in imminent danger.
But that does not mean that you are required to work in unsafe conditions and have no recourse against your employer. You are permitted to notify your employer of potential hazards and to request that he fix the danger. If your employer refuses to do anything, you may file a complaint with OSHA to initiate an investigation. You need to follow these steps to ensure that your employee protections are activated.
But, if you think waiting for an official investigation is too slow and the danger is imminent, you can refuse to work if all of the following conditions are met. First, you asked your employer to fix the harm, and he refused. Second, you have a good faith belief that the danger is imminent. Third, a "reasonable person" would also believe the danger is imminent. Finally, there isn't sufficient time to wait for an official OSHA investigation.
If you or a co-worker suffered an on-the-job injury because your employer compelled you to work in an unsafe condition, you might want to speak to a lawyer. You might have a valid claim for workers' compensation or even civil damages. A lawyer can go over the situation with you and walk you through the evidence and legal hurdles to obtain your compensation. You shouldn't be forced to pay for your medical bills; you were just doing your job.