Employment Discrimination Blog

Friday, April 24, 2020

Employees Forced to Work in Dangerous Conditions May Be Protected

Can I be fired if I refuse to work without adequate personal protective gear?

While many of us have settled into the routine of working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, millions of other Americans continue to go to work everyday to ensure the medical, safety, and essential needs like food, electric, and water, are met around the country. Essential workers are everyday heroes during the pandemic, critical to our survival and well-being. As essential workers put themselves on the frontlines, they deserve to be protected in the best way possible. However, employees of some companies and industries are reporting that their safety is being compromised.

Alarming reports have emerged of workers being fired due to raising safety concerns. In Chicago, a nurse at Northwestern Memorial Hospital claims she was fired after wearing her own N95 mask instead of the provided surgical masks. She has since filed suit against the hospital. Workers at some Amazon warehouses have walked out over safety concerns, including crowding and a lack of sanitation. In the midst of so many safety issues surrounding COVID-19, the question arises, are employees protected if they refuse to work under what they believe are dangerous conditions? Our Atlanta employment discrimination lawyers provide a look at existing federal protections below.

The Taft-Hartley Act and OSHA

While COVID-19 is a novel worldwide problem, employee safety has long been an issue across the United States. Several federal laws already exist that attempt to keep employees safe without sacrificing their jobs. Section 502 of the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947 (known as the Taft-Hartley Act) provides that if employees refuse to work due to unusually dangerous conditions, they may not be fired or permanently replaced.

Further, the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 requires that employers assure employee workplaces are free from hazards that could cause death or serious harm. Viruses are included as a recognized potential harm. With that being said, traditionally OSHA has been poorly enforced and does not offer a private right of legal action. Some lawmakers are pushing for new laws to be put in place to offer employees protections from unnecessary dangers as can arise during the coronavirus pandemic. For now, employees who feel that they are being asked to work under unnecessarily dangerous conditions should approach their employer with their concerns and consult with an employment discrimination lawyer if their safety continues to be put at risk.

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