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Legal Rights

After years of hard fighting, the union movement has achieved certain basic legal and contractual health and safety rights for workers.  Since the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, safety and health conditions in our nation’s workplaces have improved. Workers’ lives have been saved and injury and illness rates have dropped in many industry sectors of the economy. However, many hazards continue to kill and injure workers and OSHA remains woefully underfunded to do its job of guaranteeing every worker a safe and healthy workplace.  It is our job to continue this fight for safe jobs.  If you feel that your working environment is in violation of your safety rights, click here to find out how to file an OSHA complaint.

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.

“Each employer shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”–Occupational Safety and Health Act, Section 5(a). Click here for the complete text of the law.

  • 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.

“[E]mployees and their designated representatives [have] a right of access to relevant exposure and medical records [including records of e]nvironmental (workplace) monitoring or measuring of a toxic substance or harmful physical agent,…[and records of b]iological monitoring results which directly assess the absorption of a toxic substance or harmful physical agent by body systems.”–Code of Federal Regulations, Title 29, Section 1910.1020. Click here for the complete text of the Access to Employee Exposure and Medical Records regulation.

  • Under Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations, you have a legal right to complain to your employer about dangerous conditions.

“[E]mployees [can not be] discouraged from lodging complaints about occupational safety and health matters with their employers….[Employees who make s]uch complaints to employers…would be protected against discharge or discrimination caused by a complaint to the employer.”–Code of Federal Regulations, Title 29, Section 1977.12(b)(2) Click here for the complete text of the regulation.

  • 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.

“Any employees or representative of employees who believe that a violation of a safety or health standard exists that threatens physical harm, or that an imminent danger exists, may request an inspection by giving notice to the Secretary or his authorized representative of such violation or danger.”–Occupational Safety and Health Act, Section 8(f)(1) Click here for the complete text of the law.

  • 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.

“Compliance Safety and Health Officers may consult with employees concerning matters of occupational safety and health to the extent they deem necessary for the conduct of an effective and thorough inspection. During the course of an inspection, any employee shall be afforded an opportunity to bring any violation of the Act which he has reason to believe exists in the workplace to the attention of the Compliance Safety and Health Officer.”–Code of Federal Regulations, Title 29, Section 1903.10 (Complete) Click here for links to all of Part 1903–“Inspections, Citations, and Proposed Penalties.”

  • 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.

“No person shall discharge or in any manner discriminate against any employee because such employee has filed any complaint or instituted or caused to be instituted any proceeding under or related to this Act or has testified or is about to testify in any such proceeding or because of the exercise by such employee on behalf of himself or others of any right afforded by this Act.”–Occupational Safety and Health Act, Section 11(c)(1) Click here for the complete text of the law.

  • 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.

“Employees shall have the right to…engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of…mutual aid or protection.” from Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act. Click here for the complete text of the law.

“[O]ccasions might arise when an employee is confronted with a choice between not performing assigned tasks or subjecting himself to serious injury or death arising from a hazardous condition at the workplace. If the employee, with no reasonable alternative, refuses in good faith to expose himself to the dangerous condition, he would be protected against subsequent discrimination. The condition causing the employee’s apprehension of death or injury must be of such a nature that a reasonable person, under the circumstances then confronting the employee, would conclude that there is a real danger of death or serious injury and that there is insufficient time, due to the urgency of the situation, to eliminate the danger through resort to regular statutory enforcement channels. In addition, in such circumstances, the employee, where possible, must also have sought from his employer, and been unable to obtain, a correction of the dangerous condition.”–Code of Federal Regulations, Title 29, Section 1977.12(b)(2) Click here for the complete text of the regulation.

  • 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.

“Employees shall have the right to…engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of…mutual aid or protection.”–from Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act. Click here for the complete text of the law.

“[O]ccasions might arise when an employee is confronted with a choice between not performing assigned tasks or subjecting himself to serious injury or death arising from a hazardous condition at the workplace. If the employee, with no reasonable alternative, refuses in good faith to expose himself to the dangerous condition, he would be protected against subsequent discrimination. The condition causing the employee’s apprehension of death or injury must be of such a nature that a reasonable person, under the circumstances then confronting the employee, would conclude that there is a real danger of death or serious injury and that there is insufficient time, due to the urgency of the situation, to eliminate the danger through resort to regular statutory enforcement channels. In addition, in such circumstances, the employee, where possible, must also have sought from his employer, and been unable to obtain, a correction of the dangerous condition.”–Code of Federal Regulations, Title 29, Section 1977.12(b)(2) Click here for the complete text of the regulation.

  • 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.

“Employers shall provide employees with effective information and training on hazardous chemicals in their work area at the time of their initial assignment, and whenever a new physical or health hazard the employees have not previously been trained about is introduced into their work area….Employee training shall include…the physical and health hazards of the chemicals in the work area…[and] the measures employees can take to protect themselves from these hazards, including specific procedures the employer has implemented to protect employees from exposure to hazardous chemicals, such as appropriate work practices, emergency procedures, and personal protective equipment to be used.”–Hazard Communication Standard, Section (h). (Code of Federal Regulations, Title 29, Section 1900.1200)

Material Safety Data Sheets must be available in your workplace. An employer with several locations must have Material Safety Data Sheets at each location for the hazardous materials used at that location.

Click here for the complete Hazard Communication Standard.

  • 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.

The OSHA Recording and Reporting Occupational Injuries and Illness standard (29 CFR 1904) requires most employers with more than 10 full-time employees to keep a yearly log of all work-related injuries and illnesses. This OSHA Log of Injuries and Illnesses, or OSHA Form (log) 200, must list all workplace illnesses. It must list all injuries requiring more than first aid or resulting in lost workdays, restricted duties, or transfer to another job. The log must indicate the nature of the illness or injury, when and where it occurred, the injured or ill employee and the number of workdays lost or restricted, if any. You can request access to your employer’s OSHA 200 logs for the past five years. The request should be made in writing. Keep copies of the request. Click here to view a sample letter. The employer must provide the log within a “reasonable time period”–usually interpreted as 15 working days.

Information provided by the AFL-CIO & the BCTGM Research and Education Dept.