The Right to Refuse Unsafe Work in an Era of Climate Change


Executive Summary

With the climate crisis accelerating, workers in every state will increasingly face natural dangers in the workplace. The right to refuse dangerous work as it currently exists in the Occupational Safety and Health Act is both too vague and too onerous, requiring individual workers who feel impending danger to speculate about the mindset of others and second-guess their own knowledge and to remain in danger’s path until company management deems evacuation prudent. The right to refuse dangerous work under the National Labor Relations Act similarly requires workers to collect “ascertainable, objective evidence” of risk—an unsafe choice in the face of oncoming danger. In both cases, the risk of discipline, wage loss, and even termination compels workers to make decisions destined to have terrible outcomes.

Black and Latinx workers in particular have been sorted into jobs that make these dangers an increasingly daily reality.

  • Using data provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we can estimate that nationally approximately 38.7 million workers are employed in industries that can routinely place them at risk from climate dangers.
  • Nationally, just under 22 percent of white workers are employed in at-risk jobs, while 25.5 percent of Black workers are in these industries, as are 36 percent of Latinx workers.
  • In 14 states, Black workers face at least a 30 percent chance of being in an at-risk job. Latinx workers have a 30 percent chance or higher of working at-risk jobs in all but 11 states.
  • Workers with the fewest resources to heal from workplace illnesses and injuries—the underpaid and the uninsured—are most likely to experience harms during natural dangers.
  • Climate change is resulting in more frequent and more volatile natural dangers that build upon one another to create compounding workplace dangers for those in at-risk jobs.
  • By design, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is underfunded and understaffed and cannot alone keep workers safe in a natural emergency with after-the-fact reactive enforcement mechanisms.

In the environment we face now, workers need more than 20th century health and safety regimes to keep themselves safe. There must be a rebalancing of power so that workers can exercise more autonomy over their workplace safety. They must have a real right to refuse dangerous work in the face of natural disasters, and it must be supported with job-protected rights to paid leave, anti-retaliation provisions with meaningful penalties for noncompliance, and expansive unemployment insurance benefits.


Download the full policy brief to read more. 

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About the Author

Anastasia Christman

Areas of expertise:
  • Climate Justice,
  • Policy Analysis,
  • Procurement Policy,
  • Research,
  • Worker Organizing

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