Are green buildings safe for construction workers?



Surprisingly, they may not be so.

Within the past decade, many efforts have been done to raise our awareness of green movement. Green ratings and certifications, innovations in building materials are being promoted continuously to a certain level, bringing higher number of adoption in construction works. Asia, being the hot spot with more than 20 developing countries, is in rapid movement. Many projects are under constructions and are being brought to the market, carrying the “green” banner: green cluster, green office tower, green apartment, and they do feature their green certificates.

It still appears, however, that post-production is what matters when it comes to measuring our green efforts. Ratings and certifications are used to assess the end result and how these green buildings will perform as a finished product, how it will perform as a piece of construction. Which kinds of materials are used? Which kinds of improvements are brought to the neighborhood? How much energy is reduced? These questions are the main touch points in our certifications. It is without doubt helping us put our standard higher, yet is still minimum in looking deeper at how the projects are executed.

Workers: risks and liabilities

Green building is designed to reduce the overall impact of the built environment on human health and the natural environment. And by this very definition, the world is in frenzy about going green. But sometimes, we get a little carried away with this excitement, especially when it goes down to workers’ safety.

Recent study in United States shows that there is a higher accident rate for workers in LEED-certified projects, nearly 50% increase of injury rate, compared to traditional constructions. Matthew Hallowell, assistant professor in the Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering Department at the University of Colorado Boulder, were able to identify 14 LEED credentials that may create heightened risks for construction workers. Most notable risks include a perceived 41% higher risk associated with installing sustainable roofing, a perceived 37% increase in risk from installing PV panels for on-site renewable energy, a perceived 36% additional risk of cuts, abrasions and lacerations from construction waste management and perceived 32% heightened risk of falls from installing skylights and atriums to meet the daylight and views credit.

“I was very surprised when I read the conclusions,” says Brendan Owens, vice president of LEED Technical Development at USGBC. “LEED buildings are substantively different than non-LEED buildings and while there are risks in all construction, we did not expect green building construction would have higher incidents. I don’t know that a lot of people would have held an opinion that was different than mine prior to this report.”

It is true that we approach green to be the long-term solution for our current trending problems in environment. But abandoning the present is not likely to be right option either.

Asia and its workers’ safety

Singapore, the leading country in green movement in South East Asia, also posted similar result revealed by Workplace Safety and Health Council in April. The report showed the increase in number of workplace injuries: 12,115 accidents in 2013, up from 10,121 accidents in 2011, with the construction industry contributed 46.4% in 2013, up from 36.1% in 2011.

In another side, Japan, despite having been successful in reducing the number of construction fatalities to below 300 accidents in a year since 2009, in 2012, the number is back on the bullish side with a total 367 fatalities, as shown in report by Japan National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health in 2013.

Meanwhile in Hong Kong, report by Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Labour Department in 2012 showed that occupational accidents stood at 12,547 accidents, a positive progress from 14,015 accidents in 2010 and 13,658 accidents in 2011. But not in construction industry, which saw an increase in number from 2,884 accidents in 2010 to 3,116 accidents in 2011 to 3,160 accidents in 2012.

These studies finally bring up one question: could a building truly be considered sustainable if the health and safety of its constructors were at risk? Current ratings and certifications surely miss that particular aspect and therefore needs evolving. “Workers’ safety and health must be considered as integral components of sustainable building design, construction and operation,” said Hallowell.

What should be done?

Workers safety issues are not exclusively green-related, and many have started to address them. International Labor Organisation (ILO) has been pioneering programs to educate our workers about their safety, such as the Zero Accident Program worldwide. Meanwhile others are conducting seminars and annual events.

It is time for us, who are left behind despite being in direct touch with construction industry, to take further steps. Workers’ safety factor has to be brought to green ratings and certifications. And we can even add some more innovations. This will surely attract more challenges and difficulties to be green, however, there is nothing to regret.

Our current “green” is pretty much focusing on bringing better building to our environment. We see “green” as an end product. We have to remember that the true meaning of green is ultimately and eventually back to us. It is meant to better our life quality as a whole. ( – RO)

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