Green construction and worker safety

| 19th March 2019
construction works
Green construction yields promising results for the future of our planet. But new technologies come with new safety risks for workers.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that green construction is "the practice of creating structures and using processes that are environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building's lifecycle."

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is always working to increase construction practices that address health and safety hazards.

The NIOSH Construction Program works through every stage of development - from pre-design to design, construction, occupancy and eventual demolition, the safety of people in the area remains a top priority.

NIOSH is not the only group in the United States pushing for safer conditions for construction workers. While worksites have improved in the past, how things are built is under constant transformation.

In this case, switching to green, eco-friendly building designs have been both a good and bad thing for construction workers. While the general point is to ensure the health of people throughout the building's life, some of the practices are new and not yet mastered.

Green positives

All construction can be a dangerous business. Just because the building is environmentally friendly doesn't mean it'll be safer to build from the label alone. Work has to be put into the project for everything to come out right with everyone's well-being in mind. However, green buildings and construction can make sites safer for workers.

The NIOSH Office of Construction Safety and Health, along with the United States Green Building Council, has developed a concept called Prevention through Design, or PtD. This concept, explained in two webinars, covers the prevention of occupational injuries, illnesses, fatalities and exposures on the worksite. PtD is there to minimize risks during the design phase of buildings by changing equipment, tools, processes and anything else to make the job safer.

Through PtD, workers eliminate hazards as early as possible. This can easily be implemented through green construction, as everything to make the building green is decided upon during the design phase. The premises, structure, equipment, machinery, substances and other parts of construction all have to be taken into account for both reasons.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that green construction is "the practice of creating structures and using processes that are environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building's lifecycle." While also being considered as high performance and sustainable, green buildings are also meant to be better for durability, comfort and the economy.

Occupational and environmental health can benefit each other by working together. As of 2011, 71 percent of construction businesses claimed to use at least one piece of technology or practice that was green while over half reported being involved with energy and waste efficiency.

The Bureau of Labor and Statistics estimates that about 100 construction workers are killed each year. Going off this figure, the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) finds that 55 percent of those fatalities happen on the worksite rather than anywhere else. Construction is a dangerous job either way, but finding new innovations to make the work safer is worth trying out, which is one reason why green building continues to gain traction.

Green negatives

The Identification of Safety Risks for High-Performance Sustainable Construction Projects study looked into construction projects with the United States Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, certification. LEED remains the largest program in America for certifying green buildings.

In the study, dozens of designers and contractors were interviewed, each with an average of 100 traditional construction jobs and about four LEED jobs. Out of the results, 12 LEED guidelines lead to an increase in safety risk compared to non-LEED.

A lot of the problems have to do with height coupled with unfamiliar, new technology. The high-risk tasks include constructing atria and installing solar panels. This has been attributed to the 24 percent increase in falls.

There are also more electrical currents near unstable soils and an increased use of heavy equipment on LEED projects. Even wastewater technologies have about 14 percent more exposure to harmful substances.

The Bureau of Labor and Statistics also conducted the Occupational Employment Statistics, or OES, survey. Along with the O*NET green occupational categories, about 90 percent of the construction workforce is now employed in green-related industries. Again, the increased risk of falls is a big factor when dealing with solar or wind power, as well as skylights or atriums. They also found extra exposure to hazardous materials because of weatherization.

Some other hazards not previously considered were from cement, concrete, terrazzo and insulation exposure to silica, coal ash and nanomaterials. In addition to material hazards, injuries continued to happen in green worksites. While these are all important problems to consider, the situation doesn't have to be like this.

Safety First

The executive director of the Center for Construction Research and Training, Peter Stafford, noted that "with proper layout of the worksite, recyclables can be sorted safely and efficiently. With properly scheduled breaks for hydration, a reflective roof doesn't have to mean trips to the hospital. And with proper fall protection, solar panels can reduce our dependence on fossil fuels without risking workers' lives." Simply put, new technology brings new safety measures.

Construction can be a dangerous job, especially when negligence is involved.

While green construction has new problems to overcome, they aren't much worse than the issues already presented, and they're better during the long run.

New safety measures need to be implemented for these different processes, and proper training must be conducted. With knowledge and the correct tools, risks can be lowered for everyone's peace of mind.

This Author

Emily Folk is a conservation and sustainability writer and the editor of Conservation Folks.


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