"Green" Construction Workers May Face Additional Safety Risks

Nov. 30, 2011
It's not easy being green – and it might not necessarily be safer for construction crews building environmentally friendly projects, either. According to new research, these workers suffer more falls than workers on traditional projects; are exposed to new, high-risk tasks; incur more lacerations, strains and sprains; and more.

The study, "Identification of Safety Risks for High Performance Sustainable Construction Projects," which appeared in the Journal of Construction Engineering and Management, examined construction projects built to achieve the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. LEED is the largest program in the country for certifying and verifying green buildings.

For their eight case studies on the issue, researchers interviewed dozens designers and contractors who had completed an average of 100 "traditional" construction projects as well as an average of four LEED projects. According to the results, 12 LEED credits lead to an increase in worker safety risks as compared to non-LEED work.

The study found that LEED project workers:

· Face new, high-risk tasks not found in traditional projects, such as constructing atria and installing solar panels or vegetated roofs;
· Work at height – including with electrical current, near unstable soils and near heavy equipment – for a greater period of time than workers on non-LEED projects;
· Incur a 36 percent increase in lacerations, strains and sprains from construction materials;
· Suffer a 24 percent increase in falls to lower levels during roof work, which researchers attributed to the installation of solar panels;
· Experience a 19 percent increase in eyestrain when installing reflective roof membranes; and
· Face a 14 percent increase in exposure to harmful substances when installing innovative wastewater technologies.

"It doesn't have to be this way," noted Peter Stafford, executive director of CPWR – the Center for Construction Research and Training, which supported the study. "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 and limbs."

According to the contractors and designers interviewed for the study, such projects could reduce injuries and better protect workers by incorporating prefabrication, effective site layout and alternative products. Using low-VOC materials also could reduce occupational health risks for workers in enclosed environments.

The study was conducted by lead author Matthew R. Hallowell, along with Katherine S. Dewlaney Bernard R. Fortunato III and Michael Behm.

About the Author

Laura Walter

Laura Walter was formerly senior editor of EHS Today. She is a subject matter expert in EHS compliance and government issues and has covered a variety of topics relating to occupational safety and health. Her writing has earned awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), the Trade Association Business Publications International (TABPI) and APEX Awards for Publication Excellence. Her debut novel, Body of Stars (Dutton) was published in 2021.

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