The right to refuse dangerous work

Kathy Wilkes
Progressive Perspectives (TNS)
Recovery operations continue after the partial collapse of an Amazon Fulfillment Center in Edwardsville, Illinois on December 12, 2021. The facility was damaged by a tornado on December 10, 2021.  (Tim Vizer/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

The massive tornadoes that struck in mid-December claimed the lives of more than a dozen workers at an Amazon warehouse in Illinois and the Mayfield candle factory in Kentucky. Some of the surviving workers said their requests to leave were met with threats of termination.

None of this should have happened. In fact, it’s against the law.

Section 5 of the Occupational Safety & Health Act of 1970, which was signed by Republican President Richard Nixon, created what the Occupational Safety and Health Administration calls the “Workers’ Right to Refuse Dangerous Work.” The Act covers most private sector and some public sector workers.

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According to OSHA’s website, the right of workers to refuse to perform a task is protected if all of the following four conditions are met:

— The worker, where possible, has asked the employer to correct the hazard, but the employer failed to do so.

— The employee has refused to work in “good faith,” due to genuine concern of imminent danger.

— A reasonable person would agree that the conditions present a real danger.

— There isn’t enough time to get the hazard corrected through regular enforcement channels.

Given the imminent and dangerous threat the tornadoes posed, it was both legal and logical for workers at Amazon and Mayfield to leave. What OSHA or the Department of Labor or the Justice Department do about that remains to be seen.

If only workers had used their rights. But how would they know, unless they knew the law or where to look to find it or even what they’d be looking for?

A standard OSHA poster for display in the workplace is silent on the right to refuse, referring in general terms to workers’ rights to a safe workplace and offering a phone number to call. OSHA must make those rights clear on mandatory workplace posters.

The media have also largely failed to draw appropriate attention to these workplace rights, as experienced reporters dedicated to labor issues have by-and-large been replaced by general assignment reporters or those covering business.

It’s no surprise, then, that workers don’t know their rights or, at minimum, how to save their own lives on the job in the face of workplace dangers. U.S. workers deserve better. Who would dare say publicly they don’t?

— Kathy Wilkes of Madison, Wisconsin, is a longtime labor journalist and former union co-founder and officer. This column was produced for The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.