When the job market is as tight as it is now, few workers are willing to make waves and risk losing their employment. But should workers risk their health and safety or that of their co-workers or the public just to keep a job? There are a number of laws, both on the state and federal level, intended to keep New Jersey workers safe in the workplace and free from reprisal should they refuse to perform an unsafe job.
The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and the Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA) are some of the laws that protect workers on the federal level. In New Jersey, workers also have the protection of the New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) and the Public Employees’ Occupational Safety and Health Act. In additional, there are a number of industry-specific statutes that also aim to protect workers under certain circumstances. (1)
Perhaps the most recognized of these laws is OSHA. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (also called OSHA) protects the employee’s right to a safe workplace by hearing complaints, performing inspections of workplaces and imposing fines on businesses found to be in violation of safety standards. (1) For example this past spring, OSHA found a West Trenton ball-bearings manufacturer guilty of 21 safety violations and fined the company $88,200. (2) Separately a New Jersey general contractor and five subcontractors were fined a total of $95,470 for 20 health and safety violations. OSHA does not, however, grant rights to employees to overtly refuse an unsafe work assignment. (3)
The Protecting America’s Workers Act of 2011 (PAWA), currently pending in Congress, would increase employee protections by broadening the protections of OSHA. If adopted, the new law would, in part, protect employees from punishment for refusing to perform an assignment if the employee had a reasonable concern that the assignment could result in harm to him/her or other employees. (1)
With these protections come various responsibilities for the employees. Simply refusing to perform the job is not an option. The employee must show that he or she refused to do the work in good faith. Also the employee must make the employer aware of potential hazards and request the hazards be resolved. Assuming there is time and danger is not imminent, the employee is responsible for following the proper channels for enforcing the statute. (1)