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Can Employees Refuse to Do Dangerous Work?

  • Published: March 5, 2023

Each year, thousands of employees are injured or die due to workplace-related accidents. In fact, in 2020 alone, 4,764 employees died on the job, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Many more individuals are being exposed to unhealthy environments that lead to severe illnesses years later. But when does a worker have the right to refuse dangerous work? 

Employees have the legal right to refuse to work if they genuinely believe in good faith that they’re being exposed to an imminent hazard or danger. The term “good faith” means that even if no imminent danger was found, the employee still had reasonable grounds to believe there was. If you refuse to do dangerous work and doing so leads to wrongful termination or retaliation, you could potentially sue your employer. You’ll want an experienced wrongful termination attorney in California by your side to fight on your behalf.

How OSHA Helps With Refusal to Work Cases

The Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed by Congress in 1970 to protect employees from hazardous or dangerous conditions that can lead to illness, injury, or death at the workplace. The Act’s Section 5 states that every employer must provide a place of employment to their employees that is safe and free of any recognized dangers that could cause serious physical harm or death to their employees.

While this act doesn’t provide you with the legal right to refuse to work because of potentially unsafe work conditions or working environment, a regulation under this act does provide you with protection from subsequent discrimination if you do wish to refuse to perform a job because you, in good faith, believe that the job will place you in imminent danger and lead to severe physical harm or death.

Unsafe Work Conditions for Refusal to Work 

OSHA does state that your right to refuse to perform a job is protected if you meet the following criteria:

  1. Where possible, you’ve asked your employer to remedy or eliminate the hazard, and they have failed to do so; and because of this, you refuse to perform a job in good faith (you believe there’s imminent danger present).
  2. A reasonable individual would agree there’s a real danger of severe injury or death; and there’s not enough time, because of the urgency of the danger, to have it remedied or eliminated through routine enforcement channels (i.e., requestion OSHA to come in and inspect).

If you decide to refuse to work or perform a job, you can also refuse to go back to work until the dangerous work condition is eliminated or if OSHA performs an investigation and concludes that there isn’t any existing danger.

Generally, when a safety workplace hazard doesn’t pose an imminent danger, you’re advised to provide your employer with a written statement and wait for the employer to remedy or eliminate the hazard. However, if the employer fails to do this promptly, you can file a formal complaint with the OSHA. It’s in your best interest to consult with an experienced workplace lawyer before making any decisions. With a lawyer, you can discuss the reasonableness and legality of refusing to work or perform a job because of unsafe work conditions. 

Your Employer Can’t Retaliate Against You if You Refuse to Perform Dangerous Work 

In California, employees are protected through Cal/OSHA from unsafe work conditions. Unfortunately, many workers aren’t aware of their legally-protected Cal/OSHA rights or how they can keep themselves protected.

Cal/OSHA offers greater protection in several respects than the federal law, including:

It’s the state counterpart of the entire federal OSHA Act. Cal/OSHA also requires employers to provide information about their employee protections and their own obligations. This will include information about workers’ rights to:

  • Request safety inspections
  • Report what they believe to be unsafe work conditions
  • Refuse to work in hazardous work conditions
  • Be provided with information through the Hazardous Substances and Information Training Act

California employees aren’t required to perform a job or work they believe is unsafe or dangerous. If a worker has a reasonable “good faith” belief that performing the job will cause imminent danger to them, and their employer refuses or fails to fix the safety issue, the worker can refuse to perform the job. However, the employee can only refuse to perform the job or work if there’s not enough time for them to report the unsafe hazard or danger to the appropriate authorities and there aren’t any reasonable alternatives to perform the job without safety risks (i.e., an employee is asked to climb scaffolding with no safety equipment). 


If these conditions are met, and the worker refuses to perform the job, the employer can’t retaliate against the employee for making that decision. A skilled employment retaliation lawyer would likely explain that an employer may violate the law if they retaliate against an employee by:

  • Cutting their hours
  • Putting them on an unfavorable shift
  • Terminating them
  • Taking other actions

If your employer retaliated against you for reporting any hazardous or dangerous working conditions to the proper agencies, you may be entitled to compensation. A reputable employment retaliation lawyer can work closely with you to help protect your rights and pursue justice.

Whistleblower Protections

There are certain “whistleblower protections” in place by Cal/OSHA for any worker who provides information to the appropriate agency that they reasonably believe violates state or federal law or who reports unsafe work conditions or practices at their place of work. Cal/OSHA protects workers who “blow the whistle” on their employers by protecting them from being retaliated against, fired, discriminated against, or disciplined for either refusing to work in dangerous conditions or for filing a formal complaint about such conditions.

Call KCNS Law Group in California to Speak With Reputable Employment Retaliation Attorneys Today 

If you file a case that meets the criteria mentioned above and you’ve notified your employer of your refusal to perform a job due to hazardous conditions, your employer is prohibited from taking any adverse action against you, including wrongful termination.

If you’ve suffered retaliation in any form by your employer because you refused to work in unsafe conditions, one of our experienced employment retaliation lawyers at KCNS Law Group can help. Call us today at (818) 937-9255 or fill out our contact form to schedule your free consultation.

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