OHS Canada Magazine

Feature

Safety Goes Green

The fatalities came fast. First, a 1,300 kilogram steel wall slipped loose from a crane, smashing into another wall and bringing both down onto 40-year-old Bobby Lee Tohannie and 24-year-old Angel Hernandez. Half a year later, Harvey Englander...


The fatalities came fast. First, a 1,300 kilogram steel wall slipped loose from a crane, smashing into another wall and bringing both down onto 40-year-old Bobby Lee Tohannie and 24-year-old Angel Hernandez. Half a year later, Harvey Englander was struck by the counter-weight for a construction elevator. Then, ironworker Harold Billingsley and electrician Mark Wescoat both fell to their deaths.

It was not until the death of Dustin Tarter, who was killed after getting caught between a crane counter-weight and triggered a strike in June of 2008 by workers at the MGM Mirage’s CityCentre project in Las Vegas, Nevada, that the tide of worker fatalities was stemmed.

But even after six deaths on the project in less than a year and a half, when all was said and done, six of the buildings on the project received Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) gold certifications — a ranking of environmental sustainability from the United States Green Building Council. It is an endorsement that has confounded health and safety professionals, prompting many to question the meaning of “sustainability.”

“Should a building be considered green if multiple injuries, or for that matter, a fatality occurs during its construction, maintenance or use and it can be demonstrated that the injury or fatality was influenced by the absence of recognized safe design and construction methods?” asks an editorial by members of the Washington, D.C.-based National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), published in the journal Industrial Health in July 2010. It went on to note that studies of LEED (which is also available in Canada and overseen by the Canada Green Building Council) buildings have shown more complex design elements that can be more dangerous than traditional, non-green designs.

The green movement and occupational health and safety efforts have largely operated in their own spheres; only recently has there been a move to create synergy between the two fields. In the past, greening efforts had largely ignored the concept of worker safety and in some extreme cases, made work more dangerous. Consider the substitution of solvent-based paints by water-based varieties, which include the addition of biocides intended to harm living organisms and require the use of personal protective equipment.

“There could be some safety or health hazards that have been created, but not enough information or research is done,” says Sylvia Boyce, staff representative of the health and safety department with United Steelworkers Canada in Toronto.

To researchers like John Gambatese, professor of civil and construction engineering at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon, health hazards created by green efforts demonstrate why environmental health and worker health need to be spoken in the same sentence.

“In addition to being good stewards of the environment, we need to be good stewards of our people resources too,” says Gambatese, who is also the author of the study Green design and construction: Understanding the effects on construction worker safety and health.

GOING GREEN

ECO Canada, an industry-led human resources organization in Calgary for professionals in the environmental sector, defined the green economy in a 2010 paper as “the aggregate of all activity operating with the primary intention of reducing conventional levels of resource consumption, harmful emissions and minimizing all forms of environmental impact.”

A heightened awareness of environmental degradation resulting from industrialization and technological advances has created a push for greater ecological responsibility among corporations and government institutions alike. Across sectors, many industries in Canada have felt the need to modify their work and incorporate some form of “green” technology, materials and practices into their work routines.

Sustainable Development Technology Canada, a not-for-profit, government-funded foundation supporting the development of clean technologies, reported that as of December, 2011, it had invested $560 million into more than 200 projects in the energy exploration, power generation, energy utilization, transportation, agriculture, forestry and waste management industries.

Canada’s two largest provinces, British Columbia and Ontario, are trailblazers in their endeavour to create jobs in the green sector. The government of British Columbia noted in June that its $138-per capita investment in the province’s green economy is the highest in the country, with Ontario being a distant second at just more than $80 per capita.

Last year, the Ontario government reported that 20,000 jobs were created in the green energy sector as a result of the Green Energy and Green Economy Act, 2009. The act is intended to promote the growth of renewable energy products, encourage energy conservation and create green jobs. That number is expected to reach 50,000 by the end of this year.

Apart from the energy sector, areas like waste management have also seen increases in job growth. In June, a Niagara Falls, Ontario company reported the creation of 30 new jobs by installing new machinery to reduce and recycle waste into phosphoric acid, which can be sold to the fertilizer industry. Out west, a simple act like banning mattresses from landfills in Metro Vancouver created three new recycling companies and 45 new jobs, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada reported in September of 2011.

The need for oversight in environmental efforts is also expanding the green job field. Dave Fennell, senior safety advisor at Imperial Oil Resources and an instructor for the University of Alberta’s occupational health and safety program in Edmonton, says that in the last 20 years, Imperial Oil’s environmental staff has almost quadrupled.

Fennell recounts that environmental-related jobs were “not very trendy” when he graduated with an environmental degree in 1979. “But today, we can’t get enough environmental people.”

While the growth of green jobs are positive developments from an economic perspective, what are the repercussions on  worker safety? Do these jobs create new hazards that differ from similar jobs in the non-green sector? What are the preventive measures needed to mitigate these risks and the training required to ensure workers are aware of these dangers?

Leeding the Way

In the construction industry, getting a platinum Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating for a building is a benchmark for eco-consciousness. The rating is awarded to buildings that have hit at least 80 of 100 base points in the LEED 2009 rating system, which awards points based on sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources and indoor environmental quality.

But when it comes to the safety of LEED buildings versus non-green constructions, researcher John Gambatese, professor of civil and construction engineering at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon, found no statistically significant difference in safety between both types of buildings.

“If you’re going to create a LEED or sustainable building, there should be a difference, a positive difference, because safety and health is part of sustainability. It’s the social part of sustainability,” he st
resses. Gambatese says it is hard to accept a green project that has had a worker injury or fatality being given a high rating in recognition of its green design, considering the toll it has taken on its workers.

While there are factors in the LEED requirements that have had a positive impact on worker health — such as the use of non-toxic materials and efforts to use paint that does not emit fumes — he felt a lot more could be done to encourage safe, sustainable work.

This led to a second study, funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in Washington, D.C., which looked at how LEED credits can be redesigned to include the workplace safety aspect without hindering its core focus on sustainability.

While the study is under review by NIOSH, Gambatese says he has been in communication with the U.S. Green Building Council, which oversees the LEED program. “They’re currently going through the review process for the next version of the rating system,” he says.

WHAT IS GREEN?

Health and safety representatives in Canada, the United States and across the world are demanding that before any job is considered part of the green economy, it must be safe for both the environment and workers alike.

This is the crux of the Green Jobs Initiative, a program started by the United Nations Environment Programme, the International Labour Organization (ILO), the International Organization of Employers and the International Trade Union Confederation. The initiative states that protection of the environment and worker well-being are intrinsically linked. In other words, it is not enough to keep worker safety at status quo — green jobs must also enhance human well-being.

“You can’t have a healthy planet if the people are sick from toxic chemicals that keep the planet green,” says John Bennett, executive director of Sierra Club Canada in Ottawa.

“Green jobs must be safe and healthy jobs,” Boyce says. “It’s important to make health and safety a focus during the planning and engineering stages, versus trying to think about it after a facility is constructed or machinery and materials are modified.”

NIOSH’s Prevention through Design initiative attempts to do just that by pushing employers down south to address workplace safety issues in the design process and prevent or minimize work-related hazards during the construction, manufacture, use, maintenance and disposal of facilities, materials and equipment.

Gambatese cites an example to illustrate the depth of consideration that needs to go into green designs and safety planning. The glare from the white, reflective roofing used for some green buildings poses a visual hazard to workers, especially in summer. “It’s very bright up there and you have to wear special sunglasses to keep your eyes protected,” he says.

Another green design that can increase the risk of hazard to workers is the installation of more windows to enhance natural lighting. While the dangers associated with installing windows are the same regardless of whether or not a building is green, increasing the number of windows hikes the potential for falls during installation and facility maintenance, Gambatese contends.

And this is where design can be leveraged to make a site safer. Gambatese points to parapets that are built tall enough can serve as a guardrail, so that workers and maintenance staff do not have to rely on temporary restraints while working on a roof.

To better reflect the symbolic relationship between design and safety, Gambatese has developed a 50-point rating system similar to LEED, which focuses on the challenges a building’s design presents to worker health and safety.

“It looks at anything that is involved with the project team,” he says. And that includes ensuring all personal protective equipment is available, conducting a job hazard analysis prior to starting work, demonstrating the owner’s commitment to project safety and designing for safety.

“ ‘As an architect, what can I do to design for safety to eliminate the hazards before the job starts up?’ ” Gambatese says that is a question that ought to be asked as it helps people see workplace safety from a project perspective and provides an incentive to create smarter, safer designs.

SHADES OF DANGER

While many of the risks in green jobs are similar to those faced in traditional industries, the job tasks being undertaken and the sources of danger are likely to be different. An ILO paper notes that the growth of the green economy can lead to workers being thrust into jobs with different demands that could put them at risk.

However, president Theo Kowalchuk of 1Life Workplace Safety in Winnipeg, believes that if a company has done its due diligence with regards to safety, any potential hazards arising from greening a workplace would be caught before they can bring harm to a worker. “Safety management systems are safety management systems; it doesn’t matter that you’re in a green industry or not,” she argues.

Michael Wright, the director of health, safety and environment for the United Steelworkers of America cited the example of recycling jobs in Victorian London while speaking at a 2009 workshop in Washington, D.C. The “toshers, mudlarks and bone-pickers” that collected refuse in the sewers and mudflats of the city had green jobs, “but they were hardly safe, and they were hardly sustainable,” he said, noting that falling to one’s death while installing solar panels and falling from a smokestack are no different.

Fennell is of the mind that safety processes that seek to reduce worker risk and manage loss prevention apply to any sector. “Good training, good procedures, the ability to identify near-misses — whether it’s safety or environmental, we can use the exact same processes for that,” he contends. 

He notes that more and more industries are beginning to combine environmental health and safety and workplace safety positions into one job or within the same department. In 1983, when Fennell was the safety and environmental advisor at Imperial Oil, the industry went through a phase where the streams were separated and became specialties. Now, they are starting to merge — a trend that he says will prove beneficial down the line.

“Companies that are doing the right thing on safety to prevent injury and damage and accidents, they’ll be doing the right things to prevent the spills and emissions and environmental damages,” Fennell suggests.

For Gambatese, this shift in workplace culture is an encouraging sign that, perhaps, the industry is starting to include the human aspect in its conception of sustainability.   

Greg Burchell is assistant editor of canadian occupational health and safety news.

Green & Safe

At the 2009 Making Green Jobs Safe Workshop, hosted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Washington, D.C., representatives from workplace safety and environmental communities gathered to discuss and develop a framework on how to best ensure green jobs are safe jobs, and demonstrate that oh&s and environmental protection are both overlapping, achievable goals.

Attendees recommended seven themes to make workplace safety an integral part of the green economy:

  • Leverage on the purchasing power that government and industry already have,
  • Integrate oh&s data collection and monitoring into codes and standards of practice that already have wide support, so that improved safety and health protections become standard practice;
  • Improve the data collection process to identify and understand safety and health risks and use that data to promote oh&s investment more effectively;
  • Create better methods and workplace safety standard references that can be used by safety professionals to better protect workers;
  • Invest more time and resources to train exposed populations and increase awareness of those who are exposed to controllable risks;
  • Fix broken regulations or address gaps in safety and health coverage mandates; and,
  • Conduct research to create new motivators that will inspire owners, employers and workers to make safety at work a priority.

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