Labor and Employment

Safety in the Most Unsafe Jobs

If you have your mind set on truck driving in Alaska, cutting timber in a remote forest or some other dangerous job, make sure you understand all the risks involved and your legal rights to a safe work environment.

In 2009 in the US, 4,340 workers were killed in work-related accidents. Over 1 million more workers were injured and had to take time off work to heal.

Not surprisingly, many of the workers killed or injured were doing dangerous jobs - like working on a fishing boat or logging. Are there any laws to help protect the workers who do some of the most unsafe jobs in the world? Generally, yes. Federal and state laws are there to keep workers safe.

But sometimes, a worker has to look to himself for protection.


There are two key laws protecting workers doing practically any job:


The federal Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 guards against work-related deaths, illnesses and injuries. It's enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The goal is to create and keep safe workplaces.

Under OSHA, workers have rights, including the right to:

  • Training and education on hazardous materials or processes used at work
  • Be present and watch any testing or investigation of workplace hazards
  • Request an OSHA inspection or investigation; help with an investigation; or refuse to work if a hazard poses a serious threat to your health or safety, all without fear of being fired or disciplined in retaliation for it

In addition to the federal law and agency, most states have OSHA laws, too. They may give you even more rights and protection than the federal law.


The Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 (Mine Act) requires safety measures in coal and other mining operations. It's enforced by the Mine Safety & Health Administration (MSHA).

Under the Mine Act, miners have the right to:

  • File a complaint with the MSHA or state agency about unsafe or unhealthy mine conditions
  • Leave a mine if you haven't had the health and safety training required by the Mine Act
  • Refuse to work in an unsafe mine if the owner/operator refuses to fix the problem
  • Participate in any investigation or legal action started under the Mine Act

You have other rights, too. And you can't be fired or disciplined in retaliation for taking advantage of any of them.

Also, in the wake of the 2010 coal mine disaster in West Virginia, federal lawmakers are working on new and improved safety standards for coal mine owners to follow and new, broader protections for miners and their families.

Workers' Comp

Workers compensation laws don't focus so much on preventing injuries. Rather, they help workers and protect employers after an injury.

Generally, an injured worker gets a portion of her wages and paid medical treatment until she's able to return to work. She can't file a lawsuit against her employer, though, even if the accident was her employer's fault.


These laws don't cover all workers. For instance, if you're an independent contractor - meaning you work for yourself, not for an employer - OSHA and workers' comp laws don't apply to you. (Generally, the Mine Act covers anyone who works in a mine).

You may have some options, though:

  • In your independent contractor's agreement, make sure you're paid enough to cover the risks you're taking. Also, negotiate for extra compensation or benefits in case you're injured on the job
  • Purchase extra health or life insurance. Look into buying your own workers' comp insurance, too. The department of labor for the state where you're working can help
  • Think carefully about signing a waiver of liability. If you agree not to file a lawsuit against the employer if you're hurt on the job, you may spend years paying for medical treatment

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Does the family of an independent contractor injured or killed on the job have any right to sue the worker's employer?
  • I've complained to state authorities about poor safety at my work site, but nothing's been done. What should I do?
  • Can my insurance company cancel my life insurance if I take a dangerous job after my policy was issued?
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