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Employer Retaliation

Understanding the Right to Refuse Unsafe Work in California

Across the state, workers are reporting that they are being made to work without appropriate protections that may leave them vulnerable to COVID-19. Workers want to know: do we have the right to refuse work? Read the full fact sheet here.


There is a legal “right to refuse” unsafe work under the California Labor Code Section 6311. The law says an employee who is asked to do something dangerous can refuse that work if:

  • The employee knows or believes that doing the work creates a “real and apparent” health or safety hazard for themselves or their coworkers; AND 
  • The employee knows or believes that it is against the law according to the Labor Code or a Cal/OSHA order, standard, or regulation.

If you must refuse work or exercise your other occupational health and safety rights, it is best to do so with at least one fellow worker, if possible. When two or more workers act together to refuse dangerous work their action qualifies as “concerted activity” under the rules of the National Labor Relations Board. 

Workers should know, however, that to date the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (better known as Cal/OSHA) has not presented any definitive scenarios about the right to refuse and COVID-19, and it has not included this right in any of its guidance about COVID-19. Cal/OSHA has stated that workers should consult with them about whether or not a specific situation constitutes a “real and apparent” hazard such that refusing to work would be protected. 

What constitutes a “real and apparent” hazard is not otherwise defined. Under present pandemic conditions, we believe that only the following specific situation may constitute a relatively clear scenario in which a worker may refuse dangerous work: when they face being directly exposed to confirmed COVID-19 infected individual(s) or bodily fluid without proper safety protections.

For other scenarios, we encourage workers to act collectively to make sure their employers are following the guidance published by labor and public health agencies. These include Cal/OSHA and the State of California, the Labor Commissioner’s Office, the California Department of Public Health, and County Departments of Public Health. For workers whose situation does not fit the above scenarios, we encourage them to contact Worksafe and/or consult with Cal/OSHA about their specific circumstances. 

Read the full fact sheet here.