Can I Assume My Workplace Is Safe from COVID-19 if It Meets OSHA Standards?

While workers have used OSHA protections to drastically improve working conditions throughout the years, “OSHA compliance” alone does not fully guarantee you a safe workplace.

It is important to make sure the employer does more than just obey OSHA standards. Good workplace health and safety programs must go beyond compliance with OSHA standards in order to ensure a safe working environment (just as “good wages” go beyond the “minimums” set by federal “minimum wage” laws). Some OSHA standards are outdated and not as protective as they should be and standards do not exist for other hazards. For example, federal OSHA does not have a standard specifically for COVID-19 or any other airborne infectious disease.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines also are not enough for an employer to create a safe workplace from COVID-19. CDC guidelines are not enforceable and include many caveats that employers should simply consider doing instead of requiring and enforcing protections.

If you’re a union member, contact your union to learn more about OSHA and good workplace health and safety programs. If there’s not a union where you work, consider contacting a union for information and help with OSHA.

View industry-specific resources and guidance

Can I Refuse Work That Might Put Me in Serious Danger?

OSHA does not sufficiently protect workers for refusing potentially dangerous work. If you are asked to do work that you believe might lead to death or serious injury, you can refuse to do that work, but you are only protected against termination or discipline by the OSH Act if the following conditions are met:

  • You have a reasonable belief that there is a real, imminent danger of death or serious injury.
  • Your refusal to work is made in good faith.
  • You first ask your employer or supervisor to eliminate the danger.
  • You have no reasonable alternative to refusing to do the work.
  • The danger is so urgent that you cannot risk waiting for an OSHA inspection.

If all of these conditions are met, and you are punished for refusing to do dangerous work, you can file a complaint with OSHA and you may be protected. The required conditions are difficult to meet and often workers are faced with hard decisions. The best thing to do if faced with a serious safety hazard on the job is to talk with co-workers who have similar concerns so that you can act as a group. When acting together with your co-workers about a workplace concern, you may be protected by the National Labor Relations Act.

The strongest protection against employer retaliation in work refusal situations is to have a union and have strong language in your union contract that gives workers the ability to exercise our rights to refuse hazardous work.

If you think doing a task might mean imminent and serious injury or death, remember, you can get another job, but you cannot get another life.