Green & Healthy Jobs

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Janie Gittleman
CPWR - The Center for Construction Research and Training

Summary Statement

This report collects the best available information to assess the coming tide of green construction jobs with the goal of looking for opportunities to elevate worker health and safety as a priority in the green building sector. It examines the different and evolving definitions of green jobs, which are typically comprised of narrowly drawn environmental criteria and, sometimes, economic criteria promoting green jobs as “family-supporting” jobs.
June 2010

Table of Contents

Executive Summary

  1. Introduction
  2. Definition of a Green Job
    1. Current definitions
    2. Why is there a need to redefine green jobs?
    3. A new definition of green jobs
    4. Applying this definition to the construction industry
  3. Green Jobs Sectors
  4. Green Construction Job Growth
    1. Current and projected employment
    2. Drivers of green construction job growth
  5. Hazards in Green Construction
  6. Recommendations:
    1. Incorporate worker health into the green jobs debate
    2. Promote Prevention through Design
    3. Incorporate worker health into green building certification programs
      1. LEED
      2. Other green building certification programs
      3. A stand-alone worker health and safety rating system
      4. Scorecard
    4. Promote construction safety training
  7. Conclusion

Table of Figures


Thank you to the following people who have provided guidance on this project: Robert Spear, Robin Baker, Dinorah Barton-Antonio, Diane Bush, Elaine El-Askari, Pam Tau Lee, Juliann Sum, and Valeria Velazquez. Thank you also to the many people that I interviewed for this project.

Executive Summary

Green construction represents both our greatest opportunity in terms of mitigating climate change but also, because of the dangers inherent to high-hazard construction work, our greatest threat in terms of risk to workers. What we do at the nexus of green construction and occupational safety and health will set the standard for all green jobs.

This report collects the best available information to assess the coming tide of green construction jobs with the goal of looking for opportunities to elevate worker health and safety as a priority in the green building sector. This report examines the different and evolving definitions of green jobs, which are typically comprised of narrowly drawn environmental criteria and, sometimes, economic criteria promoting green jobs as “family-supporting” jobs.

A new definition of green jobs is proposed that includes broad environmental and economic criteria but also incorporates criteria to protect worker and community health. A “green job” should:
  • contribute significantly to preserving or enhancing environmental quality;
  • be economically sustainable (e.g., the job should pay a living wage, include benefits, and provide avenues for career advancement);
  • promote the health and safety of workers; and
  • never compromise the health and safety of surrounding communities.

Under this definition, some categories of construction jobs would not qualify as green. For example, because the primary purpose of highway construction is to enable driving, a major contributor to fossil fuel consumption, highway construction jobs would not qualify as green. Under this definition, a green building project might be comprised of both green jobs (such as solar panel installation) and non-green jobs (such as traditional concrete pouring), depending on the specific task at hand. This definition also forces us to explicitly balance any trade-offs that might occur between preserving environmental quality and protecting worker health.

This report presents one way to classify and categorize green jobs (including construction and non-construction jobs) (see Figure 2). It also offers an example of how occupations can be classified within the green construction sector (see Figure 3). Though data on green construction job growth is very limited, all studies agree that green building, particularly in the area of weatherization and retrofitting, will increase in coming years. Certain occupations -- including heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics and installers; insulation workers; helpers, carpenters; helpers, electricians; pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters -- will experience significant growth. A brief summary of the drivers of green construction growth is also given.

This report compiles a list of occupational hazards in the green construction industry and distinguishes between hazards that may increase in frequency (because of growth in green construction) and hazards that are associated with new technologies and products:

Summary of Occupational Hazards in Green Construction

    Increased Risk of Existing Hazards

      Skylights: Falls
      Atriums: Falls
      Atriums: Ergonomics
      Recycling: Strains, Sprains, and Punctures
      Recycling: Slips and Falls
      Recycling: “Struck-by” Hazards
      Recycled Materials: Coal Ash in Concrete
      Weatherization: Lead and Asbestos Exposure
      Weatherization: Electrical
      Indoor Air Quality: Heat Stress

    Hazards Associated with New Technologies and Products

      Solar Power: Falls
      Solar Power: Electrical
      Solar Power: Exposure to Toxics
      Solar Power: Burns
      Solar Power: Ergonomics
      Wind Power: Falls
      Wind Power: Electrical
      Weatherization: Exposure to Isocyanate
      Weatherization: Exposure to Silica
      Building Materials: Exposure to Silica
      Building Materials: Exposure to Nanomaterials

The occupational hazards listed above are described more fully in Section E of this report and are supplemented by examples, workers’ observations, and accompanying case studies (found in Appendix A). Together, these hazards point to a need for those in the occupational safety and health community to continue to push the green jobs movement to recognize and address worker hazards. The rapidly evolving nature of green building products and techniques requires us to be ever vigilant in detecting and addressing new hazards before they become persistent and quickly acting to eliminate existing hazards that we already know about and have the tools to address.

This report presents a range of recommendations for elevating construction safety as a priority in the context of green building. Changing the perception of what is green is the first step that will help pave the way for many other strategies to protect worker health. We need to incorporate worker health into the green jobs debate. The ultimate goal is build public awareness so that when people think of green jobs, they are thinking not just of narrowly defined environmental issues but are asking what makes those jobs decent, safe, and just. To do this, some in the occupational health community will need to engage advocates, researchers, and policy analysts at an abstract level to broaden the still-evolving definition of green jobs to include worker health and other key components of sustainability. Others in the occupational health community will need to widely share the concrete, real stories about green construction workers who have become injured or even died on the job. We need to create in the public’s mind an association between green jobs and worker health.

By doing so, we set the stage for making the structural changes that will institutionalize worker health protections as a part of the policies and practices related to green jobs. Promoting Prevention through Design (PtD) is one critical part of the solution -- by designing with construction safety in mind, some hazards can be greatly reduced or even eliminated altogether. There are many structural changes that need to be in place before PtD can be fully implemented, with costs, liability, and training being some of the major challenges. That being said, there is no other tool in our bag of tricks that can do more to eliminate hazards at their source than PtD.

Another recommendation is to incorporate worker health into green building certification programs. Green building certification programs like Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) have not only succeeded in reducing the carbon footprint of specific buildings but have also helped raise public awareness about the need to address the energy use, water use, materials use, and indoor air quality of buildings. The challenge in the occupational health community is to find ways to elevate construction safety as a priority and encourage green building organizations to incorporate worker health criteria into existing rating systems. This report offers some possible adjustments to the LEED rating system to build in some degree of worker protection. It also suggests that we look to other local and regional green building programs that may be open to incorporating worker health, and use those programs to drive the market and push LEED and others to follow. This report also summarizes a stand-alone worker health and safety rating system, the Sustainable Construction Safety and Health Rating System designed by Sathyanarayanan Rajendran. Though such a rating system would take significant resources to implement, it represents the most comprehensive program for rating construction safety. Other recommendations include: pre-qualification systems that allow owners to select from a pool of contractors that have already been screened by a third party for safety; an easy-to-use scorecard that owners and developers could use to rate contractors on their own; and model contracts that include language to protect worker health and safety.

Finally, we need to promote construction safety training. This means evaluating current training programs for green construction workers and developing curriculum and modules that provide workers with practical skills, adequate health and safety training, and a framework for thinking critically about what building practices and materials are truly green. This may entail reviewing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) guidelines for teaching 10-hour and 30-hour construction trainings as well as pushing health and safety trainers in general to engage in more effective teaching methods. As an example of this, Appendix A is comprised of six case studies that have been used by the Labor Occupational Health Program at the University of California at Berkeley to teach green construction safety in a participatory way. Besides reaching construction workers, we also need to adequately train designers, owners, and contractors, and create cross-training opportunities to educate our allies and potential allies in the environmental and green building communities about green construction safety.

Adding the increased complexity of worker health to an already complex green jobs debate will be difficult, but this is the obligation we have to workers. Unless there is increased awareness among the public and among key decision-makers about the need to promote green construction safety, we will always be stymied in our efforts to implement the many changes needed in the construction industry. As the country slowly moves to embrace an environmental ethos, we have an opportunity to infuse that ethos with an accompanying respect and just treatment of the workers -- members of the current generation -- who are each doing their small part to protect the environment for future generations.