LEEDing to Injury?

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Could LEED certification of new buildings cause increased injury rates for construction workers? Matthew Hallowell, an assistant professor in the Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering Department at the University of Colorado at Boulder, thinks so. A recent set of articles authored by Hallowell and several co-authors published or in review by the Journal of Construction Engineering and Management analyzed LEED credits and conducted field research on the hazards related to constructing buildings that will be registered under the LEED system. The articles found that twelve LEED credits contribute to increased hazards for construction workers. According to the author's research, these hazards for construction workers include:

- A 24% increase in injuries resulting from slips and falls while installing heavy solar panels on roofs painted white in order to reflect sunlight;

- A 36% increase in cuts and abrasions when entering recycling dumpsters to retrieve improperly discarded materials;

- An increase in falls when green roofs are installed by landscaping contractors not accustomed to working at height; and

- An increase in falls when workers spend increased time at height installing sky lights to provide day lighting or performing time-intensive wiring for lighting sensors.

The articles do note that worker safety under LEED is improved by the use of lower VOC adhesives and sealants. In all, Hallowell claims that a building cannot be considered sustainable without accounting for the health of construction workers.

But should we blame LEED for these hazards? Several of these risks and related mitigation strategies predate LEED and apply equally to any large construction project, including increased emphasis on fall protection procedures, reducing the time workers spend in hazardous situations, and increased protections against hazardous chemicals.

Further, several of the potential hazards Hallowell references could be addressed by additional safety features for construction practices that could be introduced by regulators or contractors. For example, the articles cite potential injuries caused by installing white solar roofing panels, which can be heavier and more slippery than traditional black roofing materials and can reflect light into workers' eyes. The authors recommend rubber walk pads and safety eyewear to combat these problems, safety measures that are not noted by LEED.

The U.S. Green Building Council, which oversees LEED, has taken notice of potential safety hazards. Brendan Owens, a USGBC representative, said he was surprised by Hallowell's findings and noted that USGBC is working with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to evaluate these safety issues. While it may be too late for the USGBC to include safety-related changes for the forthcoming update to the LEED rating system, called LEED 2012, safety concerns will likely play a larger role in future updates to the rating system.