The right to refuse unsafe work: Whirlpool Corp. v. Marshall

In 1974 at a Whirlpool Corporation manufacturing plant, two workers refused to perform unsafe work, resulting in a legal case which ruled in their favor.

Did you know that a legal case regarding a worker's right to refuse unsafe work went to the Supreme Court? In 1974 at a Whirlpool Corporation manufacturing plant, two workers were asked to retrieve small parts that had fallen onto a wire mesh screen 20 feet above the ground. Another worker has fatally fallen through the screen in the past, indicating that it is not stable. The two workers refused to perform the task. The corporation sent the workers home for the day and kept six hours’ worth of their pay.

As a result, United States Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall sued Whirlpool Corporation. On Feb. 26, 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of Marshall, declaring that companies cannot discriminate against workers that refuse to perform hazardous work. In Whirlpool Corp. v. Marshall, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, workers have the right to refuse work that endangers their health and safety, as long as it is done in good faith. Good faith can be interpreted as an honest belief that the job was unsafe and unusually and objectively dangerous.

The Supreme Court also set forth some conditions that must be met for OSHA's right to refuse unsafe work to apply:

  • The worker has asked the employer to correct the hazard, and the employer has failed to do so
  • The worker's refusal to work was reasonable and in “good faith”
  • Another individual has agreed that the task poses a serious threat to the health and safety of the worker
  • There is not enough time for correction of the hazard through an OSHA inspection

Although the court outlined these steps, there may be specific steps that should be taken in your workplace to get hazards fixed and avoid unsafe work. Talk to your union representative about what you should do if you are faced with hazardous work.