“There’s an assumption that green construction is safer and healthier,” but that perception is not always true, said Matt Gillen, MS, CIH, deputy director of NIOSH’s Office of Construction Safety and Health. He also pointed out that “green” does not equal sustainability, either. True sustainability is broader and should include safety and health. “Green,” meanwhile, doesn’t always include these elements.

According to Gillen, buildings have a large environmental footprint. Green buildings can reduce the use of energy, carbon dioxide and water, as well as the amount of solid waste produced. Green buildings cost less to operate while the building’s value, ROI, rent amounts and occupancy rates increase.

While construction for green buildings usually entails the same hazards as “traditional” buildings, a few risks may crop up that are specific to green construction. In particular, skylights and green roofs can lead to fall hazards, while recycling efforts might create material handling challenges.

Making “Green” Safe

Green ratings, such as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Design), play a role in driving green construction, but don’t always address specific safety issues.

John Gambatese, Ph.D., PE, associate professor at the School of Civil and Construction Engineering at Oregon State University, pointed out that a new construction project could achieve a LEED platinum certification without addressing any of the 15 credits related to human health.

Gillen called the CityCenter in Las Vegas, which was awarded six LEED gold certifications but also incurred six on-the-job fatalities, a wakeup call for the safety and health community. While there was no indication that the building’s environmental initiatives contributed to the fatalities in any way, it did demonstrate that the environmental best practices and occupational best practices took divergent paths.

“What’s wrong with this picture?” Gillen asked. “Why aren’t environmental and occupational best practices more aligned?”

NIOSH’s vision, Gillen said, is to “have occupational safety and health recognized as a fundamental dimension of true sustainability.” This could entail developing LEED pilot credits to address safety issues, adding safety and health language to existing credits or developing a new safety credits

In his research supported by NIOSH, Gambatese is investigating ways to better align those practices, such as developing a safety-rating system for green construction projects that is similar to LEED. This rating system could include 50 health and safety elements in 13 categories that include safety planning, safety training, worker involvement and more.

“We want to have projects that sustain construction worker safety and health without any occupational injuries – from start to finish of a single project; for each future project the worker is involved in; and during the worker’s remaining life after retirement from construction. That’s sustainability and good stewardship,” Gambatese said.