It may surprise some workers, but you do not have to work in unsafe or unhealthy conditions. Employers have a duty to provide a workplace that is both safe and healthy. In fact, if there is a dangerous workplace condition that poses an immediate risk of death or severe bodily harm, workers can refuse to work to avoid workplace injuries.
How severe must the danger be?
It must be extreme enough that OSHA (or a similar state-level governmental agency) would not have time to inspect the condition. It must also be so severe that a reasonable person would believe that, if an employee worked in that condition, the worker is risking life and limb, immediately. This could be exposed blades on an industrial machine, exposed live wires in a wet environment, ditches without supports, a leaning wall that is about to fall, etc. The key is immediacy and danger level.
What do I do?
If the dangerous work condition is as described above, then the first step is to let your boss know about it. Do not enter the dangerous worksite. Instead, ask for alternative duties or to work at a different worksite. Responsible employers will not ask you to work in such a condition. But, if they do, report them to OSHA, and then refuse to work. Do not leave the worksite though. Wait for your employer to ask you to leave, and then, report that retaliatory action to OSHA as well.
Do not forget to document and gather evidence
Avoiding worksite injuries is reasonable, but it does not mean that irresponsible employers will be as reasonable. If your employer insists on putting your life in danger, and you are forced to refuse to work, you need to document these interactions and gather evidence immediately. Take photographs of the dangerous condition. Make sure that you follow up all interaction with management with an email. Even if they do not respond, it will at least show they were on notice. And, after you are asked to leave the worksite, write down the timeline of events immediately. Sign that timeline and include the date and time when you made the record.
For our Cleveland, Ohio, readers, the primary takeaway from this post should be that you are empowered to avoid worksite injuries and accidents. However, if your employer does not mitigate dangers, contact OSHA and then, a lawyer.