Study examines safety hazards for ‘green’ workers

Study examines safety hazards for ‘green’ workers
While green construction initiatives are environmentally friendly, their health and safety practices aren't always as forward-thinking. Vanessa Chris talks about some of the hazards that exist in the burgeoning sector, and speculates on a future where progressive environmental and health and safety concerns go hand-in-hand.

Green construction doesn’t seem to be a passing fad. The notion of building environmentally-friendly, sustainable buildings for both today and into the future is a concept that not only appeals to the environmentally-friendly consumer, but one that also wants to save money on increasingly expensive energy costs as well.

The quickly-emerging industry has been branded as forward-thinking — embracing such innovative concepts as solar panels, geothermal energy and the use of sustainable building materials. With its roots so firmly planted on the cutting edge, it would seem that improved worker safety practices would naturally go hand-in-hand. Unfortunately, that just isn’t the case, according to a report released by U.S.-based Centre for Construction Research and Training.

In the report, Green and Healthy Jobs, the authors found a host of work-related deaths and injuries occurring in the squeaky-clean green construction sector. Among them were recycling injuries — cases of workers getting injured while separating recyclable waste materials — and chemical injuries from removing asbestos-laden insulation, among many others.

“Solar panel installation is often seen as a poster child for green construction, yet there are hazards associated with it that aren’t widely publicized such as falling during installations, and illegal dumping during the manufacturing process,” says Helen Chen, one of the authors of the report and coordinator of public programs, Labour Occupational Health Program at the University of California at Berkley. “This caused us to look at the green construction industry as a whole, and even more hazards arose.”

Summary of Occupational Hazards in Green Construction

Increased Risk of Existing Hazards
Skylights: Falls
Atriums: Falls
Atriums: Ergonomics
Recycling: Strains, Sprains and Punctures
Recycling: Slips and Falls
Recycling: “Struck-by” Hazards
Recycled Materials: Coal Ash in Concrete
Weatherization: Lead and Asbestos Exposure
Weatherization: Electrical
Indoor Air Quality: Heat Stress   

Hazards Associated with New Technologies
Solar Power: Falls
Solar Power: Electrical
Solar Power: Exposure to Toxics
Solar Power: Burns
Solar Power: Ergonomics
Wind Power: Falls
Wind Power: Electrical
Weatherization: Exposure to Isocyanate
Weatherization: Exposure to Silica
Building Materials: Exposure to Silica
Building Materials: Exposure to Nanomaterials

Source: Green and Healthy Jobs
While Chen acknowledges that similar injuries occur throughout the entire construction sector – and more attention should be paid to improving the safety of workers in this incredibly dangerous industry – she also believes that there’s an opportunity to improve and enforce stricter safety guidelines and regulations in the green construction sector.

“When an industry is just emerging, there’s an opportunity to influence regulations,” she says. “If you put rules into place early, the less people have to get injured or die.”

Chen also believes that green construction also has the potential to really reach new heights when it comes to improving worker safety. Because it functions under this public ethos of sustainability, morality and social consciousness, there’s more of a chance members of the sector — including owners, developers, designers and architects — will be open to prioritizing worker safety.

“The moral and legal obligations are the same (as other parts of the construction sector), but green construction is already embracing the notion of building in a broader way. We want them thinking critically about sustainability and making the right decisions,” she says. “The industry needs to clearly define what makes a sustainable building. It can’t be sustainable if workers are getting injured at incredibly high rates.”

Chen suggests the green construction industry should broaden its scope when it comes to thinking about the way it does business. When using a more sustainable product or building material, for example, she says the industry shouldn’t only consider its impact on the environment and the length of its lifecycle, but also its impact on the workers that will be installing or using the product.

While he can’t speak for the situation in the U.S., Mike McKenna, executive director of the BC Construction Safety Alliance, believes that most of the hazards associated with green construction in Canada are likely already covered by existing safety rules and regulations.

“I don’t know if you can separate worker safety into ‘green’ and ‘non-green’ practices,” he says. “If you’re on a roof — regardless of whether you’re installing solar panels or regular shingles — you should be following the rules specific to that task.”

McKenna says that one area that may require more attention in the future is the area of restoration — more specifically, renovating or reconstructing old buildings using more sustainable building materials. In these situations, there are a variety of unique hazards that come into play — in particular, the removal of asbestos.

“At the BCCSA, we ask ourselves, ‘Are there initiatives in place to help our construction workers get home safely at the end of the day?” he says. “If issues involving green construction arise, we would definitely be all over that. One area that may eventually require different best practices and safety requirements is the handling of chemicals such as asbestos.”

At this point, however, McKenna says that there hasn’t been an influx of chemical-related injuries, but that could be because the industry is still very new, and the Canadian sector is significantly smaller than its U.S. counterpart.

Whether an influx in green construction-related injuries occur in Canada or not, Chen believes all green construction industry participants should be integrating the true definition of sustainability into their day-to-day practices.
“Sustainability focuses on environmental, economic and social resources, and their impact across the entire construction process, throughout the entire life of the building,” Chen says. “You can have a platinum LEED rating but what does that rating mean if 12 workers had to die to get it?”