The construction industry may have inherent dangers, but construction companies have a duty to their workers to maintain a healthy and safe work environment. That usually means providing safety equipment, utilizing safety equipment and mitigating obviously dangerous conditions. However, if a construction company fails in this duty, can their workers refuse to work?
In a word, yes
Federal labor laws allow for workers to avoid construction accidents by refusing to work, if there is a dangerous workplace condition that is so unsafe that it poses a danger of imminent death, dismemberment or serious bodily harm. But, there are some pre-requisites before workers can exercise this right.
Examples of unsafe conditions that could qualify
Any unsafe workplace site could qualify if there is a hazardous working condition that clearly presents a risk of serious physical harm or death. This cannot just be a subjective belief though. Instead, it must be both a good faith belief and one that a reasonable person would also agree with. In other words, a reasonable person would also believe that the hazardous working condition rose to such a level of an imminent threat. For example, if you are asked to work in standing water when there are live wires present, or in a pit without proper support structures.
Before refusing to work, you must let your employer know about the condition and give them time to fix it or mitigate it. In the interim, you can work on alternative duties or at an alternative worksite while that dangerous condition is being eliminated or mitigated. However, if they refuse to mitigate or eliminate the condition, put your request in writing (email, certified mail, etc.), including your willingness to work in another place or on a different project. If they continue to refuse, memorialize that refusal, report it to OSHA and then exercise your right not to work in such conditions.
Proof and documentation
If your employer is refusing to mitigate an obviously dangerous condition, it is likely they will retaliate against you speaking up and refusing to be part of a construction accident. This means you need to make sure you get proof and documentation. Take pictures of the dangerous condition. Keep your records of the notice you gave your employer and their refusal to mitigate it, including your amicability to work at a different place or task. If subsequent litigation is needed, this proof and documentation will be invaluable.
Exercising your rights
For Harrisburg and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, construction workers, refusing to work can be a scary experience. But, being involved in a construction accident can be much scarier.