Imminent danger and your right to refuse to work

For the most part, employers have a pretty broad prerogative to tell employees what work has to be completed at any given time — and many jobs have an element of danger that has to be managed on a daily basis. It’s impossible, for example, to work on a construction site without recognizing that there is some danger associated with simply being there. Your employer’s rights, however, stop where imminent danger begins.

Generally speaking, you can refuse to continue working or refuse to complete a specific task, depending on the situation. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) details your right to refuse to work when the danger to your life is imminent.

Unfortunately, what you consider an issue of imminent danger and what your employer thinks may not always agree, so it’s important to handle the situation carefully:

  1. Assess the threat. It must be serious enough that you reasonably believe it could cause serious physical harm or death if you continue working. It may be wise to take photos, if possible, of the danger — just in case your employer later disputes the issue’s severity.
  2. Tell your employer, manager or supervisor immediately. Ask for the situation to be corrected before you continue.
  3. Explain that you will not do the job unless the situation is resolved.
  4. Ask to be assigned other work until the situation can be corrected.

Keep in mind, you have a right to contact OSHA at any point in order to file a complaint about the condition — which may be a smart step to take if it doesn’t look like your employer intends to address the situation appropriately.

You do not, however, have the right to leave the job site (unless being on the site is somehow putting your life in immediate danger) at will, even if your employer refuses to assign you any other work for the time being. You must remain on the site unless your employer tells you to go home — at which point you should leave.

The law forbids an employer from firing you in retaliation for refusing to work due to an imminent threat — although some employers react badly when an employee chooses to assert his or her rights. Because of that possibility, make sure that you handle your end of the situation carefully and respectfully — just in case the situation later ends up in court.