Right to refuse unsafe work

Does a worker have the right to refuse dangerous work?

The answer is YES, every individual worker has the right to refuse to do dangerous work. Workers have this right under the Common Law Contract of Employment. This applies to all employment relationships, irrespective of what is written down. Common Law was set by judges in courts and comes from hundreds of years of history (mainly in Britain). Common Law lays down very basic rights and duties for both the employer and employee.

Duties of the Employer:

  • Pay the agreed rate of pay
  • Take reasonable care for employee safety
  • Cover expenses for legitimate costs incurred in the course of work

Duties of the Employees:

  • Work in a competent and careful way
  • Obey the employer's lawful order
  • Provide faithful service
  • Account for moneys/property received
  • Make available to the employer inventions made
  • Disclose any information to the employer/supervisor.

This means that if a worker believes the employer has not taken reasonable care for his/her safety, then the worker has the right to refuse to do the work. It also gives the worker the right to refuse work that is not legal - in the case of OHS this may mean removing asbestos, operating certain pieces of plant, etc without the appropriate license.

Statute law (like the OHS legislation, awards, and so on) sits on top of the 'foundation' of Common Law and is more detailed.

With regard to refusing dangerous work, under Section 74 of the Victorian Occupational Health and Safety Act (2004), an elected OHS rep has the right to order that work which involves an immediate risk to the health and safety of any person cease. (More information)

All union members should make sure that their employer is maintaining a safe and healthy workplace. The key to making the workplace safe for all workers is strong, active OHS reps and health and safety committees. Reps can identify dangerous conditions at the workplace and negotiate introducing controls with management. Committees have a role in broader workplace issues. If the company refuses to cooperate, the rep can contact their union and also WorkSafe.

For more information and assistance, contact your union.

Last updated April 2015

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