The Right to Refuse Dangerous Work: Another Victory for Worker Safety in a Warming Climate

Oregon has taken resolute action in protecting workers from dangerous conditions caused by the worsening climate crisis. On June 7, 2023, Governor Tina Kotek signed into law Senate Bill 907, the Right to Refuse Dangerous Work. This law builds a past victory for worker safety achieved by the OEC and coalition partners in implementing permanent heat and smoke rules, fortifying our state’s commitment to shielding workers from the dangers of an increasingly volatile  climate.

The Urgent Need for Worker Protections

A farmworker carries berries in a field

Photo credit: Tim Mossholder

Across the nation, about 340 workers die each day from hazardous working conditions ranging from unsafe work equipment to extreme heat and weather-related hazards. As the climate warms, the dangers for workers grow — with work days getting hotter and wildfire seasons creating dangerous air conditions. Worryingly, Oregon has a higher fatality rate than neighboring states: Oregon’s 2021 workplace fatality rate was 3.3 worker deaths per 100,000 workers, compared to California’s 2.8 and Washington State’s 2.1. Urgent action was needed to address this deadly trend and preserve the lives and livelihoods of workers in our state.

Kate Suisman, Campaign Coordinator at the Northwest Workers’ Justice Project, emphasizes the pivotal role of worker safety: “Amidst the growing climate crisis, ensuring worker safety is paramount. If workers reasonably believe that a job assignment can cause serious harm or be fatal, they must have the power to say no.”

Empowering Workers with SB 907

SB 907 represents a commitment to workers’ safety by codifying the administrative right to refuse dangerous work and integrating it into the retaliation section of the Oregon Safe Employment Act. With this legislation, workers are protected from retaliation when they reject assignments that pose grave threats to their lives, provided there is no reasonable alternative and they act in good faith.

Martha Sonato, Legislative and Policy Advocate at the Oregon Law Center, underlines the intrinsic nature of the right to refuse hazardous work: “The right to refuse hazardous work is not just a legal provision; it is a fundamental human right. SB 907 paves the way for making this right accessible and available to workers, protecting their lives and dignity.”

Our Heat and Smoke Work Continued

As heat waves continue to bake the Pacific Northwest and serve as a wake-up call about the climate crisis, Oregon has become a leader in worker and health protections. Last year, after a year and a half of relentless advocacy from OEC and our coalition of environmental, health and science, small business, and labor partners, Oregon OSHA passed the
strongest heat and smoke rules in the nation.

But what happens to workers when current OSHA rules may not be enough to protect people who are stationed outside for 8 hours a day – such as another 116F heatwave, or 500 AQI smoke levels? Those workers should be allowed to say “no” to working. This is where SB 907 comes in. 

Ira Cuello-Martinez, Policy and Advocacy Director at PCUN, Oregon’s Farmworker Union, highlights the significance of SB 907 for people who work outside: “As advocates for farmworkers, who endure intense manual labor in hazardous conditions such as pesticides, extreme heat, and smoke, PCUN recognizes SB 907 as a crucial stride towards safeguarding their well-being.”

The “right to refuse” dangerous work already exists in state and federal rule, but the right is not well-known and difficult to exercise. The new law takes the existing administrative right and adds it to the retaliation section of the Oregon Safe Employment Act, in statute. Under SB 907, a worker is protected from retaliation if they refuse a work assignment that could seriously injure or kill them, as long as there was no reasonable alternative, and they acted in good faith.

Next Steps: Bolstering Protections Through Rulemaking

Under SB 907, Oregon OSHA is tasked with commencing rulemaking to spell out the specifics of these safeguards, aligning with federal standards. While the federal rule serves as a foundation, Oregon will collaborate closely with stakeholders to forge a tailored, Oregon-specific solution. This critical process is set to commence in the upcoming months, around Fall or Winter 2023.

OEC’s environmental health work is made possible by the support of people across the state. Make a difference and become a member of OEC today

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