field. OSH professionals, known for their strong advocacy of
worker health protection, must reach across professional disciplines to make the case that the health and safety of human resources is necessary for sustainability.
The Case for Including OSH
The U.S. construction industry employs about five percent of
the work force but accounts for 25 percent of fatalities,
making it one of the most hazardous occupations in the U.S. Between 2001 and 2008, an average of 1,170 construction workers
died per year from safety hazards.
4 NIOSH estimates that
health- related fatalities are ten times as much.
5 While studies
have not shown that green building increases occupational injuries and fatalities, neither have they demonstrated decreases.
Although the construction industry has taken many steps to
improve working conditions, and contractors have implemented
best practices and developed tools to reduce hazards, injury and
fatality rates remain unacceptably high. More responsibility for
worker safety must be shared more broadly among owners, designers and future occupants. Control of health and safety hazards can be advanced by introducing the concept of
“sustainability” in construction worker health and safety. Sustainability incorporates economic, ecological and social values.
While green building implies increased awareness for protecting
the health and safety of workers, leading green rating systems
fail to address these needs.
Environmental impact rating systems should reward green
structures designed to prevent injuries and fatalities during
construction. True sustainability takes into account social performance and a shared equity among all stakeholders. Therefore, a building should only be considered sustainable if the
safety and well-being of workers and occupants, and the health
of the environment, are protected.
A living roof from the Denver Botanic Gardens. Photo credit: Enrique Medina.
Can green practices adversely affect worker safety and health?
Some construction practices intended to protect the public also
increase construction workers’ exposure to hazards. For example, enclosing work on a building’s exterior to prevent the pub-
Hazards of Skylights
Skylights are an important design element in many green
structures. The hazards of skylights before, during and after
installation are well known, but roof openings and installed
skylights increase workers’ exposure to traditional hazards
such as falls, the leading cause of deaths in the construction industry and the second most common cause of nonfatal injuries.
OSH professionals can advocate for skylight safety requirements that include the covering and marking of all roof
openings, design of skylights so that they can support
someone who accidentally falls on the glass and allow for
cleaning and maintenance that doesn’t put workers at risk.
lic’s exposure to dust increases the workers’ likelihood of exposure to hazardous levels of dust inside the bubble. In New York
City, public complaints can lead to workers being enclosed in
barriers that reduce ambient noise levels but intensify worker
exposure to dust and other hazards.
As more green practices are designed to reduce construction’s impact on the environment, the OSH community needs to
identify unintended hazard shifting and design hazard abatements. The use of “living roofs” is one example of a green practice that puts workers at risk. Living roofs serve several
environmental purposes, such as absorbing rainwater, providing
insulation, creating a habitat for wildlife and lowering urban
air temperatures. But the construction, retrofitting, landscaping
and maintenance of living roofs expose more workers to fall
hazards due to continual maintenance. Falls are the leading
cause of fatalities in construction, which averages about 400
fatal falls per year.
4 Built-in anchorage and passive fall prevention systems should be part of all living roof designs. Creative
designers working with OSH professionals can ensure that the
fall prevention systems enhance the aesthetics of the building
presentation. (See the sidebar on this page for information
about fall hazards associated with skylights.)
The following are two additional examples of how the green
movement could benefit from OSH insight:
Coal ash in cement. EPA recently began a rulemaking process
on coal ash storage and disposal but decided to allow “
beneficial uses” of the toxic waste. Coal ash is considered beneficial
because it is a waste product that can be substituted for large
portions of Portland cement in concrete. The manufacturing of
Portland cement accounts for six to seven percent of carbon
dioxide produced by humans.
8 When coal ash is used in concrete blocks or bricks, the material is stronger and uses less
water than Portland cement.
However, coal ash also contains varying amounts of
silica, arsenic, chromium and other heavy metals that may
cause adverse health effects. Environmental reviews have focused on whether these toxics could leach out of blocks or
bricks to pollute water. Occupational scenarios do not appear
to have been considered. The introduction of this potentially
hazardous green product into the construction process should
not go unnoticed. Otherwise, workers who mix, cut and grind