“Workplace health and safety has now become an area of labor and employment relations that is ‘extensively regulated’ with ‘intense legislative activity worldwide’ in recent years” (p. 159). This apt observation by Jeffrey Hilgert can also account for the marginalization of health and safety issues from the agenda of many labor scholars. Health and safety is often associated with technical standards on matters such as safety procedures on cranes or maximum exposure levels to toxic substances. Many scholars acknowledge that health and safety is important to human life, reaching into the heart of the labor rights–human rights intersection. Scholars of international labor law also pointed at the omission of health and safety from the roster of core labor standards in the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. Few, however, are willing to plunge into the challenge to unveil the human rights dimension of what may seem a highly technical field.
In Hazard or Hardship, Hilgert provides a fascinating account of the missing link. This exploration of the link does not commence with a general theory of regulation or human rights, but instead with a very focused and seemingly minute corner of the health and safety field—the right to refuse unsafe work. The author begins the book with details, with stories, with human lives, and workers’ attempts to assert their rights; some were successful, many were not. Why focus on the right to refuse when so many other issues are at stake in the field, from standard setting, to enforcement, compensation, and rehabilitation? The reader is quickly initiated, learning that the right to refuse is a door through which many dilemmas are admitted and woven together in nonconcentric circles. The plot therefore involves multiple themes, ranging from the process of juridification and the substitution of collective bargaining with statutory rights, to the new policy-based regulatory trend in which fixed mandatory standards are replaced by processes in the workplace. The story flows from the individuals’ fight for health and safety to national legislation and adjudication, and to international standards. On the way, the author draws on fundamental concepts that are necessary for understanding governance of work—rights, power, commodification, and citizenship. This book is not for the technicians of health and safety, but rather for those who want to rethink the broader themes of labor governance, international labor law, and human rights.