Workplace safety

The short answer is “No.” As a general matter, the law does not afford employees the right to walk off the job because of unsafe conditions in the workplace. The law assumes that if the employee brought the hazard to the employer’s attention the employer would promptly correct the hazardous conditions, or if not, the employee could request an inspection of the workplace by the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries, Division of Occupational Safety & Health (DOSH).

However, a situation may arise in which a nurse is confronted with an immediate choice between not performing an assignment or being subjected to a real risk of serious injury or death arising from a hazardous workplace condition. If the nurse, with no reasonable alternative, refuses in good faith to perform work that involves exposure to the dangerous condition, the nurse is legally protected from retaliation by the employer.

The right to refuse an assigned task is protected only in these circumstances:

  1. The refusal to work must be in good faith, and not an attempt to harass the employer or disrupt business;
  2. A reasonable person would agree that under the circumstances confronting the nurse, the hazard creates a real danger of serious injury or death if the nurse were to perform the assigned task; and
  3. There is not enough time, due to the urgency of the situation, to get the hazard corrected through regular enforcement channels such as filing a complaint with DOSH.

When all three of these conditions are met, the nurse should:

  • Ask the employer to fix the problem;
  • Ask the employer for a different work assignment;
  • Tell the employer that unless the hazard is corrected, the nurse will not perform the assigned work; and
  • Remain at the facility unless directed to leave by the employer.