Your Right To Be Safe At Work

Your Right To Be Safe At Work

* This information sheet is provided as a resource for general education and is not provided for the purpose of giving legal advice of any kind.

Learn the Basics

4.1 Employer and Employee Responsibilities

Summary

All workers have the right to a safe workplace, free from avoidable dangers that can cause injury or disease. Government agencies and labor unions work to enforce state and federal laws that help make your workplace safe.

Your employer must:  
  • Provide a safe and healthy workplace and follow all safety and health rules.
  • Begin and maintain an accident-prevention program. Both employers and workers must be involved in designing the program. The program should meet the particular needs of your workplace.
  • Ban alcohol and narcotics from the workplace.
  • Prevent workers from using tools and equipment that are not safe.
  • Control chemicals.
  • Protect workers from the dangers of "biological agents" such as animals or animal waste, body fluids, biological agents in medical research labs (like bacteria), and mold or mildew.
  • Post the Job Safety and Health Law employer responsibility and worker rights notice (the WISHA poster).
  • Provide training about job health and safety.
  • Keep records of all job-related accidents. 
You must: 
  • Read the WISHA poster.
  • Follow your employer's safety and health rules and wear or use all required gear and equipment.
  • Coordinate and cooperate with other workers in order to avoid accidents.
  • Report dangerous conditions to a supervisor or safety committee.
  • Report any dangerous condition that isn't being fixed, in writing, to the Department of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH)(see below). 
  • Report any job-related injuries or illnesses to your employer and promptly seek treatment.
  • Cooperate with government inspectors.
Safety Committees and Safety Meetings: 
  • If your employer has more than eleven people working at the same time and the same location, it must set up a workplace safety committee. Safety meetings must be held at least monthly and include employee representatives.

4.2 Safety/Health Enforcement Agencies

A range of state and federal laws are aimed at protecting worker health and safety. The following agencies can help if there is a health or safety problem at your workplace:

Labor & Industries Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH)

DOSH interprets and enforces state laws on workplace health and safety, and provides education and training. DOSH offers information on core health and safety rules in the workplace, as well as job-specific health and safety rules. DOSH representatives may visit a workplace to inspect unsafe working conditions in response to complaints. DOSH inspectors will look for unsafe machinery, electrical equipment, chemicals, gases or other hazards. The toll-free number for health and safety assistance at L&I/DOSH is 1 (800) 4BE-SAFE. L&I complaint procedures are listed at the end of this chapter.

Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA)

OSHA is the federal government agency that creates workplace health and safety rules. It is a good place to turn if Washington State laws do not cover your particular issue. OSHA contact information is listed in the Resources chapter at the end of this manual.

4.3 General Workplace Safety Requirements

  • First Aid Kits

All Washington businesses are required to have a first aid kit that is easily accessible to all employees at every worksite. 

  • Ergonomics

Ergonomics is the science studying how people sit, stand or interact with desks or machines. Sitting, standing or stooping for long periods of time can cause serious injury sometimes called “repetitive stress injuries.” For more information on preventing repetitive stress and ergonomics health problems, visit: www.lni.wa.gov/Safety/Topics/Ergonomics/ 

  • Hazardous Substances

The Worker Right-to-Know law states that your employer must tell you about dangerous chemicals used in your work area and train you in their proper use. When you start your job and when new hazards come into your workplace, your employer must offer detailed information about the chemicals. For information on Worker Right-to-Know laws, contact DOSH or OSHA. 

  • Heat and Water – Working Outside

From June 1 until September 2 your employer must offer protection from heat stress. This includes providing drinking water and having someone who can give first aid on the work site if you get sick because of heat. 

  • Heat and Air Quality – Working Inside

Your employer must provide reasonable air quality that doesn’t make you sick. Restaurants and warehouses, for example, must be air-conditioned or ventilated to be safe (usually 90° F or cooler). Your employer must also ensure that chemicals released from new carpeting or other materials in the workplace won’t make you sick. If you notice something that could be toxic, report it to your employer and DOSH. For more information, visit: www.lni.wa.gov/Safety/Topics/AtoZ/IndoorAir/ 

  • Transportation

If your employer provides transportation to the job site, the vehicle must be safe, insured, and meet government standards. The number of people in a vehicle, often determined by how many seat belts are available, must be reasonable and safe. 

  • Excessive Overtime

Your employer may have to pay you extra for overtime hours depending on your industry (see: Chapter 1: Your Right to be Paid). There is no legal limit to how much overtime your employer can make you work. But, if mandatory overtime is seriously harming your health or safety, you can ask for an L&I investigation.

  • Fall Hazards

Washington State requires employers to protect all workers from falls. Your employer must provide training, prevention and equipment based on the work you do. For more information: www.lni.wa.gov/Safety/Topics/AtoZ/fallprotect/ 

  • Lock Out/Tag Out Rule

"Lockout" devices, such as combination locks, must be placed on equipment or machinery that could be dangerous if accidentally started up. Your employer should only give the combination to workers that are trained to start and stop the machine. A tag or other eye-catching warning devices should also be put on the machine to show that it may not be operated until the "tag out" device is removed. 

  • Breaks and Meals 

You are entitled to regular breaks and meal periods at your workplace. Your employer cannot set unreasonable restrictions on bathroom use.

4.4 Special Safety Rules for Some Jobs/Industries

Construction Work

Construction sites are dangerous workplaces, so there are lots of rules and regulation to follow. Employees must be properly trained to operate equipment and machinery; equipment must comply with safety standards, often requiring safety guards and warning labels; and proper clothing and protective equipment must be worn and in some cases, provided by the employer.  

Washington courts have ruled that general contractors have a duty to ensure safety for “every employee on the jobsite,” not just its own employees. This includes subcontractors and independent contractors.

Information on health and safety topics for construction sites can be found online at: www.lni.wa.gov/Safety/Topics/Industries/Construction/default.asp

Agricultural Work

https://rightsatworkwa.org/wp-admin/post.php?post=2&action=edit#
Agricultural work includes farming and ranching. Your employer must ensure that climbing or lifting to plant, maintain or harvest crops, or working with animals is done safely. In addition, there are rules regarding sanitation, safe drinking water, pesticides and insecticides and the availability of medical care.

If you have housing at the farm where you work, your employer also has to make sure that living conditions are safe. There are different sets of rules for working and living conditions. If you have internet access you can also see all safety rules here: www.lni.wa.gov/Safety/Topics/Industries/Agriculture/Default.asp

For help with agriculture workplace pesticide issues, contact the WA Dept. of Agriculture Pesticide Management Division at (877) 301-4555 or visit their website:

www.lni.wa.gov/Safety/Topics/Industries/Agriculture/Default.asp

Restaurant Work

Restaurants contain potential hazards such as hot surfaces, sharp objects, dangerous kitchen equipment, flammable oils and slippery floors. Your employer must set up an accident prevention program (APP) with employee representatives and follow it to make sure that your working conditions are as safe as possible. Your employer is required to tell you about all potentially dangerous equipment and ensure you are trained to competently use the equipment. In some cases, your employer must provide Personal Protective Equipment, such as gloves or masks. Your employer must also do a daily safety check of work areas to make sure there are no new hazards, and make sure employees are following safety rules. For more information on the safety and health rules for restaurants and setting up an APP, see: www.lni.wa.gov/Safety/Topics/AtoZ/Restaurants

Other Types of Work

Retail workers face the special safety concern of potential robbery. Office workers encounter ergonomics health issues. Health care workers face blood-borne dangers and exposure to dangerous chemicals. In addition, health care, transportation other specialized workers sometimes have limitations on work hours to ensure sufficient rest between shifts. Many workplaces also have rules concerning safe ventilation, lighting, safe entries and exits, fire hazards, crime and workplace violence. For more information on these issues visit the L&I/DOSH website: http://www.lni.wa.gov/Safety/default.asp

4.5 Harassment, Bullying or Assault

Summary

Whether you're being pressured to have sex with your boss or forced to listen to foul language or slurs, harassment and bullying of all types can create an unsafe, hostile work environment. While federal and state laws are limited in defining illegal behavior, that does not mean what you’re experiencing is acceptable. This section will guide you in understanding your rights and how to navigate hostile workplace environments.

Harassment: Under federal and WA state law it is illegal to harass a person in any aspect of employment because of that person’s race, color, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or other legally protected status. Harassment can include slurs, offensive or derogatory remarks about a person’s identity, or the display of offensive symbols. Harassment against someone because of their protected status can be illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim of the harassment being fired or demoted).See the Discrinination section to get a comprehensive list of protected statuses and guidance on how to defend your rights. 

Workplace bullying typically involves malicious behavior such as deliberate insults, threats, demeaning comments, constant criticism, overbearing supervision, profane outburst, blatant ostracism, being overworked, or simply not communicating with colleagues. More subtle forms of bullying can include withholding or supplying incorrect work-related information, sabotaging projects, passive-aggressive behavior, blocking promotions, providing unclear or contradictory instructions, or requesting unnecessary or menial work.

Generally, it is not illegal for your boss to harass you unless it is done for an illegal reason. The law does not require that your boss be nice, kind or fair, only that your boss does not treat you differently because of your age, sex, race, religion, national origin, disability, or other protected status. However, If bullying starts as retaliation against an employee who has reported ethical concerns about the company, the employee may be protected under whistleblower statutes. Workers represented by a union can report the bullying to their Union Representative and seek support in addressing the behavior with workplace management. Learn more about bullying at: https://www.workplacefairness.org/workplace-bullying

Assault/Workplace Violence. If you have experienced sexual assault or physical violence at work, report it immediately to your supervisor and/or the police, and detail the incident in writing. If you have been threatened at your workplace and your supervisor or employer does not act, or the threat of further violence is serious, report it to the local police. If you feel that you were the victim of violence because your employer violated the general duty to provide a safe workplace, you can file a complaint with OSHA and the WA Department of Labor & Industries. Employers are not automatically liable for violent acts committed by their employees. However, if your employer could have or should have known that one of their employees had violent tendencies, they may be liable for injuries caused by that employee. Documenting and reporting threatening behavior when it happens will help you in holding your employer accountable if they fail to respond adequately to your concerns. Workers compensation laws require employers to pay for injuries suffered by an employee on the job. Furthermore, employers are required by OSHA to provide a safe work environment for their employees.

Washington’s Crime Victims Compensation Program (CVCP) assists crime victims who suffer bodily injury or severe emotional stress from a crime classified as a gross misdemeanor or felony, and who are providing reasonable cooperation with law enforcement in the investigation and prosecution of the offender. CVCP covers: medical/dental benefits; lost wages; medication coverage; mental health treatment; grief counseling; and funeral expenses. CVCP is a last payor of benefits, you must use your primary insurance first. To learn more about the compensation program, go to https://www.lni.wa.gov/ClaimsIns/CrimeVictims/About/Default.asp

4.6 If You Find a Health or Safety Issue at Work

The Washington State Department of Labor & Industries (L&I), Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH) is responsible for administering the requirements for worker health and safety in Washington.

Step 1
See, smell, or hear something unsafe.
Step 2
Write down what happened, the time and date, exactly where, and who was involved. Keep this record.
Step 3
Report the safety hazard to your boss. (Note, If you are uncomfortable telling your boss directly, you can skip steps 3-4, and directly file an anonymous DOSH complaint.  You can also report it to a labor union or union representative.)
Step 4
If your boss does not fix the problem you can refuse to do the unsafe work, but you must stay at work. If you refuse to do unsafe work, tell your boss that you plan to report the violation.
Step 5
File a complaint with DOSH.
Step 6
DOSH could require an inspection of your workplace.
Step 7
DOSH will decide whether or not the problem has to be fixed. You can request that they look over the decision again if you disagree.

Generally speaking, you have the right to refuse to do unsafe work, but you should stay at the jobsite and try to find safe work to do until your shift ends or you are asked to leave.

If you have a safety committee in your workplace, you can also tell the committee. Your employer might simply correct the issue and solve the problem. But if your employer doesn’t fix it and you are still concerned about the issue, you can file a complaint with DOSH. 

Information for Federal Employees

If you are a federal employee, a non-federal employee working on federal reservations or military bases, employed on a floating worksite (dry docks, fishing boats or construction barges), or employed by a tribal employer on tribal lands in Washington State, then you should visit the  federal agency OSHA’s website or call (800) 321-OSHA [6742]

Filing a Complaint

Complaints must be made in writing. You can use an online form available in English or Spanish, or you can just write DOSH a letter explaining who you are and describing the problem. 

You can call DOSH for more information about how to make your complaint and about the complaint process at 1 (800) 4BE-SAFE (interpreter services are available). You can also find information online and file complaints at the DOSH Complaints website.

4.7 Workers’ Compensation for Injury or Occupational Disease

If you are injured at work or develop an occupational (work-related) disease, you can apply for workers’ compensation. If you need medical treatment for your injury or illness you may be entitled to help in paying for treatment. You may also be entitled to receive partial lost wages if illness or injury stopped you from being able to work. All employees have the right to receive workers’ compensation, including undocumented workers. 

Learn more in the On the Job Injury or Diagnosis of an Occupational Disease section under Chapter 2: Your Right to Care for Yourself and Family.

4.8 ICE and the Police - What to do if Immigration Comes to Your Workplace

Summary

Immigration officers are not allowed to enter private (employee-only) areas of your workplace — whether it is a factory, store, farm, or orchard — without either the owner’s permission or a judicial warrant signed by a judge. If an officer does get permission, the officer can ask you questions about your immigration status.

  • You have the right to keep silent. You don’t even have to tell the agent your name.
  • You have the right to talk to a lawyer before answering any questions. You can tell the officer, "I wish to talk to a lawyer," in answer to any question.
  • If you hire an attorney, speak only through your attorney.
  • Do not tell the immigration officer where you were born or your immigration status.
  • Do not show the officer your papers or any immigration documents. If the officer asks you for your papers, tell the officer, "Please speak to my lawyer."

The Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network (WAISN) has a Hotline (Call 844-724-3737) to find out more about what’s going on in your community and to report ICE issues. 

If you are approached by Police on the Street While Waiting for Work

The police often approach day laborers while they are gathering for work on street corners. In some places, day laborers and organizers have formed a respectful relationship with the police. If you can, work with a trusted community group or worker center to learn about your rights and to make a plan of action for dealing with the police. 

Raising the Bar! 

City of Seattle Police Officers are not supposed to ask you about your immigration status. If they do, you do not have to answer. 

If You Are Approached By The Police:
  • The most important thing to remember is to stay calm and do not run because you may not be in any trouble. Running may give the police a reason to hold you. 
  • Never give a police officer false identification or immigration-related documents.
  • Regardless of your immigration status, you have the right to not answer the police officer’s questions. However, refusing to speak with the police can make them suspicious.
  • You should ask if you are free to leave. If the officer answers, "yes," then you should walk away from the street corner. 

FAQs:

Can the Police Ticket or Arrest Me for Looking for Work on a Street Corner or Other Public Space?

Most likely, yes. Many cities have laws that forbid loitering and blocking traffic. Some of these laws make it illegal to look for work in particular places. Day labor organizers in some areas have worked with police to identify places workers can wait for work or address traffic and neighborhood concerns without ticketing workers.

What Should I do if Police Ticket or Arrest Me?

You should remain silent and say, "I am asserting my right to remain silent. I want to speak to an attorney. I do not consent to a search." Once a ticket is issued or you have been arrested, do not argue with the officer. The police can and will use anything you say against you. Carry a card that states you wish to exercise your right to remain silent. If the police start asking questions, present the card to the police and remain silent. 

If possible, carry the name and contact information for an attorney or community organization who can give you advice in case you are arrested.

Special Cases

Generally, workplace safety laws cover all employees. There are also special workplace safety laws covering Agriculture and Construction work. See details in Chapter 4.4 section above and in the full manual.

Am I an employee?

In Washington, workplace safety laws can apply to all workers at a jobsite, including both employees and independent contractors. Agencies may handle safety issues differently depending on your employment status.  See Chapter 8 Am I an Employee?

Who Can Help?

Contact L&I Safety and Health Section (https://www.lni.wa.gov/safety/), or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) https://www.osha.gov/

Did You Know?

There were 84 fatal workplace injuries in Washington in 2017. Over the last decade in Washington State, roughly 115,000 workers were injured on the job each year.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Labor and Industries