LEED-Bashing: Is Building to LEED Standards More Dangerous Than Conventional Construction?

Richard Masoner/CC BY 2.0

Construction is a dangerous business. These days, it is probably safer than it has ever been; you rarely see workers without reflective vests, hard hats and safety boots and even safety glasses. But according to a new study there is a growing danger out there, the insidious threat of green building.

The study, Identification of Safety Risks for High-Performance Sustainable Construction Projects, is behind a fence, but the abstract summarizes the dangers:

The US Green Building Council (USGBC) sponsored LEED green building program represents the largest program in the United States for the measurement, verification, and certification of green buildings. A recent study found that LEED certified buildings have accounted for a higher injury rate than comparative traditional non‐LEED buildings. .... The results indicate that (1) workers on LEED construction projects are exposed to work at height, with electrical current, near unstable soils, and near heavy equipment for a greater period of time than on traditional projects; (2) workers are exposed to new high risk tasks such as constructing atria, installing green roofs, and installing photovoltaic (PV) panels.


Architectural Record recently picked up the story, in an article titled New Research Reveals the Safety Hazards of Green Building, and writes about the study by Matthew Hollowell:

Hallowell and his team of researchers were able to identify 14 LEED credentials [sic] that may create heightened risks to 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.

The article then lists some examples of the kinds of risk that are purported to be bigger in green building,with suggested mitigations. For instance, white roofs are shiny, so installers should wear sunglasses. Building Commissioning agents distract and scare workers, so they should take courses and wear protective clothing. Dumpster diving after mistakenly trashed recyclables might lead to sprains and cuts. And of course, if you are on roofs installing solar panels and skylights, you are more likely to fall off, so why don't you put your solar panels on the ground instead.

One has to point out that LEED is a measuring system, not a building system. Lots of buildings that are not LEED certified have skylights on the roof and ducts on the ceilings. Nor is every green building LEED certified. Getting on roofs and ladders is dangerous, whether the building is LEED certified or not. The study appears to imply that in LEED buildings, workers spend more time on ladders and roofs and jumping in dumpsters, but lots of buildings have fancy finishes and complicated details that take longer to install. It is just completely silly; One could probably find statistics that indicate that the rate of accidents at building sites more than one storey high and do a headline saying New Research Reveals the Safety Hazards of High Building.

As one commenter noted:

100% Spot-On!!. As soon as a Construction Worker finds out that he or she is working on a "Green" Project, they immedietly forget all previous training, become blind, lose their sense of balance, develop a death wish and go out of their way to do bad work and bring harm to others. One major correction, worthy of note: When construction workers see a Commissioning Agent come on to their work site, they "Jump", rather than fall off of the building.

I have a lot of problems with the LEED rating system. But I have bigger problems with the right wing reaction against green building and the endless LEED-bashing that has been going on. The real problem with this whole story is that in about a week, Fox News or some right wing politician will be screaming Study Shows LEED Kills! . But if the study had said "more complicated buildings with more stuff on the roof are more dangerous to build" it wouldn't be news, because it is obvious.

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Tags: Green Building

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