You Want Me To Do What?
Caterpillar CEO Jim Owens says that nothing is more important than safety, not productivity or even quality—nothing is more important and I agree. I appreciate his sentiment and the positive response many managers have shown in efforts related to this issue, but some in management have obviously not received that memo. As a result of this I’d like to let you know about your rights (or lack of rights) to refuse unsafe work.
In the case of being assigned perform unsafe work, the old grievance handlers dictate, “comply now, and grieve later” is good, but not great advice. The ability to file a grievance is only one of the many benefits of working in a facility represented by a union. This is especially important if you are assigned to do work that causes you to have a reasonable fear for your immediate health or safety, what OSHA calls “imminent danger”. Section 13(a) of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act defines imminent danger as ".....any conditions or practices in any place of employment which are such that a danger exists which could reasonably be expected to cause death or serious physical harm immediately or before the imminence of such danger can be eliminated through the enforcement procedures otherwise provided by this Act."
Further, there are several other conditions that have to be met before a hazard can be considered to be an imminent danger.
Do not be confused, OSHA does not give you the right to refuse to do unsafe work, but it does give you protection from discrimination under Section 11(c) of the OSH Act which forbids the employer from punishing or discriminating against employees for exercising such rights as:
In order to protect yourself when assigned an unsafe job, you need to first identify the imminent danger to your supervisor. This step allows your supervisor a chance to correct the situation and prevent further escalation of the problem. If your supervisor does not agree that there is a serious health or safety concern, ask for your union safety representative and your union steward before you start the work. AT NO TIME SHOULD YOU REFUSE TO DO THE WORK IN QUESTION, rather you should repeat your health or safety concerns to your supervisor and ask them to remove or protect you from those hazards prior to starting the work. Refusing to perform work is INSUBORDINATION, which is a whole different problem.
Remain calm and volunteer to do any other task you feel is safe until you have had a chance to discuss the problem with your union representatives. The supervisor may try to get you to refuse to do the work—don’t refuse, but remain calm and continue to ask for other work until the job is made safe and for your union representatives.
The best way to prevent being assigned unsafe work is to report any and all unsafe and/or unhealthy conditions to your supervisor in the first place. If the supervisor can’t/won’t address the problem, ask for your UAW Safety representative and file a safety complaint as provided for in 8.3 of the contract. Preventing worker exposure to hazards is always the best solution for health and safety issues.
Even following these steps may not prevent you being given disciplinary action, but if you truly feel that you may be seriously hurt or made ill, and you have made your supervisor aware of the safety or health hazard, you have asked for your union representatives, you have not refused to do assigned work but in fact volunteered for other safe work, you should end up alright and be able to do the most important task of every workday—go home at the end of the shift.
UAW Local 974