After years of hard fighting, the union movement has achieved certain basic legal and contractual health and safety rights for workers. You should note that, even though you have these legal rights, they are not easy to enforce. Your employer may respond harshly if you exercise them. Even though the law is on your side, it could take years for government officials and the courts to undo an employer’s illegal punishment of a worker who exercises a safety and health right. If you plan to exercise a safety and health right in a hostile employment environment, it is a good idea to be prepared for a harsh response and a long wait to obtain justice. Each brief description below is linked to a fuller explanation of the law and how to use it.
Under the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act, you have a legal right to a workplace free of recognized health and safety hazards.
Under regulations of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), you have a legal right to any information that your employer has about any exposure you may have had to hazards such as toxic chemicals or noise. You also have a right to any medical records your employer has concerning you.
Under Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations, you have a legal right to complain to your employer about dangerous conditions.
Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, you have a legal right to file complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and request OSHA inspections. This right also applies to safety complaints to other government agencies, such as a fire department.
Under Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations, you have the legal right to respond to questions from an OSHA inspector and point out hazards to the inspector, including telling the inspector about past accidents or illnesses and informing the inspector if your employer has temporarily eliminated hazards during the inspection.
Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, you have a legal right not to be discriminated against for exercising your health and safety rights. “Discrimination” includes any adverse action by an employer–anything from being harassed to being fired.
Under the National Labor Relations Act, you have a legal right to refuse to work or to walk off the job because of workplace hazards. This right only applies to “concerted activities,” which are actions by two or more workers or by one worker whose action is endorsed by other workers. Such a refusal to work because of workplace hazards must be based on a good-faith belief that the condition is hazardous. Even if you are wrong about the danger (say, if you refuse to work because you smell what you believe is a toxic vapor, but it turns out to be a nontoxic vapor), your actions are protected.
Under Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations, you have a legal right to refuse work that places you in imminent danger of death or serious physical harm and there is not time to contact OSHA. Before you refuse unsafe work, you should request that your employer eliminate the hazard and you should make it clear that you will accept an alternate assignment. Unlike the National Labor Relations Act, the OSHA rule protects actions by a single worker as well as “concerted activities.” The OSHA regulation only protects you if the danger can be proven to exist; if you refuse to work because you believe a condition is hazardous, but are proved wrong, OSHA does not protect you.
Under regulations of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, you have a legal right to information and training about hazardous materials you work with, including Material Safety Data Sheets.
Under regulations of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, you have a legal right to information about injuries and illnesses experienced by you and your co-workers.
* Information provided by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health