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Worker Safety on LEED Projects Questioned

A 2009 study found no difference in worker safety on LEED projects, but a new study asks what factors might make LEED construction sites less safe, drawing a link from design to worker safety.
March 15, 2012

A new study out of the University of Colorado–Boulder suggests that LEED buildings are more likely to place construction workers in danger than are their conventional counterparts. While the results of the new study, to be published in April 2012 in the Journal of Construction Engineering and Management, are getting a skeptical view among the LEED community, the authors insist that the effect of design choices on the safety of construction workers should be a stronger consideration for architects.

The study, “Identification of Safety Risks for High Performance Sustainable Construction Projects,” doesn’t show that LEED construction sites are less safe. Nor does a 2009 study in the same journal that it cites, which gathered Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) incident rate data from green and non-green projects. However, the authors of the new study say that they found enough suggestive evidence in the data set from the 2009 study that they wanted to establish just what it is about LEED projects that might be less safe.

The authors of the new study sought to document what LEED credits could be associated with design choices and construction practices that could potentially elevate injury rates. They did this by interviewing members of LEED design and construction teams on Colorado projects.

One of the risks most often cited by these teams was the potential for overexertion through elements introduced to earn LEED credits: larger windows for daylighting, more ventilation systems, more piping installations for water reuse, and more insulation. According to study coauthor Matthew Hallowell, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of Colorado, critics of the study have seized upon details like this to say it’s simply about “more work” and that having an HVAC contractor stay onsite for an extra week to install more ductwork hardly seems like a dangerous working condition.

Hallowell prefers to focus on other reported risks, however: “It's more time working near excavation, more time working at heights—more time working in dangerous situations,” he says. For example, although inherently hazardous rooftop work is a part of any construction project, Hallowell says that workers installing rooftop solar panels or handling heavy reflective roofing membranes on LEED projects are in those situations for longer periods, putting them at greater risk. On the plus side, the study found that use of low-VOC adhesives and construction air quality management plans should improve worker conditions, and that many LEED credits, such as those involving tracking of materials purchases, should not affect worker safety.

“There is a lot of research out there showing that the decisions made during design have a great impact on safety and health onsite,” Hallowell told me. Meanwhile, he notes, “OSHA places the burden of safety on the contractors. There is a disconnect there.”

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Brendan Owens, vice president of LEED technical development at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), told me that while the study was surprising to him, USGBC has been working with the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and wants to find opportunities to increase worker safety as part of the LEED equation. He cautions, however, that LEED shouldn’t try to replicate OSHA regulations and other safety rules.

The biggest safety-related revision coming in LEED 2012, Owens says, will affect non-U.S. projects. There are greater concerns in places “where no worker safety standards currently exist and where no tracking exists as a routine matter.” LEED 2012 will have a minimum program requirement for projects outside the U.S. to document the safety and training activities that are occurring on LEED projects.

Hallowell hopes to see more specific improvements in the future. “It’s not the LEED credit itself but the design methods and construction strategies,” he says. Therefore, he’d like to see credit-specific measures, such as use of walkpads for roofs where slippery reflective membranes are being worked on.

“Should the LEED framework be held responsible for safety issues? No,” says Yancy Wright, director at Sellen Sustainability, who argues that worker training is the key ingredient. Citing vegetated roofs as an example, Wright said, “Anytime you initiate a new construction practice or building system, it introduces tradespeople to new situations, and there is the potential for a higher risk of incident.” Wright’s firm is working on training materials targeting new construction practices occurring on LEED and non-LEED projects.

What are your experiences around safety issues on LEED projects? Are you seeing safer projects, or have there been issues?

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