Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act), companies are required to provide a safe workplace for their employees. Employees who are concerned about an unsafe condition may file a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which will conduct an investigation and fine a company for any violations it finds.

The OSH Act and the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) both give employees the right to refuse to work in conditions they believe are unsafe. The employees must have a reasonable, good-faith belief that working would be unsafe, but the law protects them even if they’re honestly mistaken about the danger. The two laws have slightly different standards.

Protected Concerted Activity

For both union and nonunion employees, refusing to work because of safety concerns can be a concerted activity that’s protected by the NLRA. Concerted activity usually involves more than one employee, but it can consist of one employee acting on a matter that affects other workers.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) clearly would protect a refusal to work if conditions were actually unsafe or if employees had a “reasonable and honest belief” that the work presented a safety hazard. What if the employees’ concerted action was unreasonable? The NLRB has indicated that it would protect unreasonable actions as well.

Workers' Compensation

In general, employees who are injured on the job are entitled to workers’ compensation regardless of whether the injury resulted from an unsafe condition or whether anyone had reported that condition to the employer. If a company allows extremely unsafe conditions that injure or kill an employee, it may lose the protection of workers’ compensation law. Then the employee or her family could sue the company with no limit on damages.


Ergonomics is the science of designing equipment to maximize worker productivity by reducing operator discomfort and fatigue. The principle behind ergonomics is that by fitting the job to the worker, either by adjusting the workstation, rotating the job between workers, or using mechanical assistance, certain workplace injuries can be greatly reduced or even eliminated.

Workplace Violence

Employers may be liable for negligence if they fail to exercise ordinary care to avoid potential violence in the workplace. Violence by employees can create liability for negligent hiring, retention, supervision, or training if their conduct was reasonably foreseeable.

Employers and business property owners also face potential liability for failing to address an increased risk of violence from the outside, such as a threat of nighttime assaults or robberies in a high-crime area. Workers’ compensation laws cover some workplace injuries due to violence, but not all. The rules vary from state to state.