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Know you right to refuse unsafe work

Every job has risks of some sort -- but some are far more dangerous than others. For those occupations, certain protective measures have to be taken to ensure that workers can operate with at least some sense of personal safety.

What can you do, however, when your employer wants to "forge ahead" on a job that's clearly unsafe -- without the necessary personal protective equipment or other equipment you need to do so with a modicum of care?

You have the right to refuse to work -- and that right is protected by federal law -- as long as the following conditions are met:

  1. You must believe that performing the work would put you in imminent danger.
  2. A reasonable person would agree with your assessment.
  3. If possible, you need to let your employer know that the job is too dangerous and ask him or her to take steps to minimize the problem
  4. The employer refuses to take action.
  5. There's no reasonable way to take other corrective action (like contacting the Occupational Safety and Health Administration).

How you handle yourself in the situation is also important. In specific, you need to ask your employer to assign you some other work if they cannot correct the situation. Make it clear that you are willing to do the work -- once the immediate hazard is addressed. Do not walk off the worksite.

You are legally protected from retaliation. Your employer is not permitted to fire you, reduce your hours, substantially change your duties to punish you or take other punitive action. Unfortunately, some employers may not observe the law. If your employer is one of them, you may need to seek legal assistance to enforce your rights.

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