Workers Compensation

Is My Employer Required to Maintain a Safe Work Environment?

Updated by Sachi Barreiro, Attorney, University of San Francisco School of Law
Learn your rights to a workplace free of dangerous hazards.

All employees have the right to a safe working environment. Under the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act), employers must take steps to keep the workplace free of safety hazards that could cause death or serious injury to their employees. Nearly all private employers are covered by the OSH Act.

What Are Your Employer’s Obligations?

Employers must maintain a workplace that is free of recognized safety hazards that are likely to cause serious injury or death. Among other things, employers must:

  • take steps to reduce safety hazards in the workplace
  • inform employees if they are working with hazardous materials
  • give employees safety gear or special training necessary to do their jobs safely, and
  • keep records of all workplace injuries, deaths, and exposures to toxic or hazardous materials.

Your employer has a duty to examine its workplace, identify safety hazards, and make sure that its working conditions meet federal standards. A federal agency called the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) enforces the OSH Act. OSHA has compiled lists of known safety hazards for certain types of occupations and has issued hundreds of safety regulations, including those covering:

  • storage of hazardous materials
  • emergency evacuation plans in the event of a fire or other emergency
  • protective gear, such as safety goggles and clothing
  • first aid and onsite medical treatment
  • equipment maintenance and safety devices, and
  • prevention of falls and other accidents for those who work at elevated heights.

The exact measures taken by your employer depend on your occupation and what injuries are most likely to occur. For example, an employer in the construction industry may need to provide employees with hard hats and other protective gear, take steps to prevent falls from scaffolding, and guide employees on the safe use of power tools. By contrast, an employer in an office setting may need to create an emergency evacuation plan and provide ergonomic work stations.

What Are Your Rights as an Employee?

If you believe you’re at risk of serious harm due to your working conditions, your first step should be to talk to your employer. Let your supervisor know about your safety concerns and ask when you can expect a response. If your supervisor doesn’t follow up with a response, put your concerns in writing.

Filing a Complaint with OSHA

If your employer fails to respond to your safety complaints, you can file a complaint with OSHA and request an inspection of your workplace. You can file your complaint anonymously if you wish. However, anonymous complaints are given less priority than complaints by current employees. If the issue is time sensitive, you can make your complaint and ask that your identity be kept confidential. OSHA is obligated to protect your identity if you request that it do so.

You can file your complaint online, by telephone, or in person at the nearest OSHA location. Over half of the states have state-run OSHA programs. If you live in a state with an OSHA-approved plan, you may also need to file a complaint with your state agency. To find your local office, use OSHA’s office directory.

OSHA can order your employer to repair unsafe equipment, clean cluttered areas, put new safety procedures in place, or remove all workers from the area where the danger exists. If necessary, OSHA can ask a court to order your employer to comply with OSHA standards for workplace safety.

Refusing to Work

If you believe there is an immediate and serious threat to your safety, you may also have the right to refuse to perform your job until the dangerous condition is corrected. However, walking off the job is a risky move. There are several requirements that must be met in order for you to be protected, and it will be up to OSHA or a court to decide whether the requirements were met in your case.

You may refuse to perform dangerous work if all of the following are true:

  • you complained to your employer about the dangerous condition, and your employer refused to correct it
  • you are refusing to work in “good faith,” meaning that you honestly believe that there is an imminent and serious threat to your health and safety
  • a reasonable person in your situation would agree that there is an immediate danger of death or serious injury, and
  • because of the urgency, there isn’t enough time to wait for the unsafe condition to be corrected through the proper channels (for example, waiting for OSHA to complete its investigation).

Even if all of the requirements above are met, you still must take certain steps before you can walk off the job. You must:

  • inform your employer that you won’t perform the work until the dangerous condition is corrected
  • ask your employer once again to remove the dangerous condition
  • ask your employer to give you other work until the safety hazard is gone, and
  • continue to show up to your work site until your employer actually instructs you to leave.

Protection From Retaliation

Under the OSH Act, employers are prohibited from firing, disciplining, or taking other negative action against employees who complain about workplace safety, file OSHA complaints, cooperate with OSHA inspections, or otherwise assert their rights under the law.

If you believe your employer has retaliated against you because of your efforts to increase work safety, you can file a discrimination claim with OSHA. However, you must do so within 30 days of the retaliatory action. Any negative treatment by your employer can qualify as retaliation, including a demotion, decrease in pay, loss of seniority, or being assigned to less favorable work duties or shifts.

If you’re successful in your retaliation complaint, you typically have the right to be reinstated to your former position, with the same pay, benefits, seniority, and other terms and conditions of employment. However, reinstatement may not be possible or practical, especially if you feel like your relationship with your employer has been damaged beyond repair. However, even if you don’t want to return to your job, you can still receive the wages, benefits, and other compensation you lost as a result of the retaliatory action.

Talk to a Lawyer

Your workplace safety concerns might be resolved by talking to your employer or by filing an OSHA complaint. However, if you believe that your health and safety are in immediate danger, you should talk to a lawyer right away. A lawyer can walk you through your options, including whether you have the right to walk off the job.

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