Refusing unsafe work

A word about refusing unsafe work


Does a worker have the right to refuse unsafe or dangerous work?

The answer is YES!

Every worker has the basic right to refuse to undertake unsafe work or do dangerous work. Workers have this right under the ‘Common Law Contract of Employment’. This  right also applies to all employment relationships, regardless of what is written down. Basic rights and duties for both the employer and employee (worker) are set out by the Common Law and include:

The Duties of the Employer:

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

Duties of the Employees / Workers:

  • 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 basically means that if a worker believes the employer has not taken reasonable care for his or her safety, then the worker has the right to refuse to do that (unsafe) work.

The worker also has the right to refuse work that is not legal – in the case of work health and safety/occupational health and safety this can mean things like removing asbestos, operating certain pieces of plant without the appropriate license, etc.

An elected OHS rep has the right to order that work which involves an immediate risk to the health and safety of any person ceases – for example in Victoria this is legislated for under Section 74 of the Victorian Occupational Health and Safety Act (2004)

For more information, also in all jurisdictions, refer back to the Health and Safety section.

The Fair Work Act also incorporates the common law principle concerning the refusal to perform unsafe work.
At common law, if an employee refuses to perform work lawfully directed by the employer, the employee is in breach of the contract of employment. However, if the employer’s direction exposes the employee to unacceptable risk and the employee refuses to work, the employee is not in breach of the contract.


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