In discussions of sustainability, we mostly hear about the environment – investing in renewable energy sources like wind or solar, constructing energy-and-water-efficient buildings or taking individual action to reduce our carbon footprint. But sustainability isn’t just about reducing greenhouse gas emissions or pledging carbon neutrality; it’s about keeping people thriving too. After all, who are we saving the world for? By this definition, sustainability fits squarely in the framework of occupational health and safety. If environmental sustainability is about conserving resources and preserving the world around us, sustainable health and safety is about conserving an employer’s most important resource: its workers.
“Employers can bring this holistic approach to construction projects by planning for safety ahead of time and considering employees as part of a project’s life cycle,” says LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck. “LIUNA and the LHSFNA are constantly fighting to ensure LIUNA members come home from work in the same condition they arrived.”
Despite having the same objective, safety and sustainability are often discussed separately. For a building to be considered sustainable, it must be accessible, energy-efficient, resilient to weather, water-efficient, beneficial to its occupants’ health and minimize any adverse environmental impacts such as waste and emissions. Often, these “green” certifications do not list worker health and safety as performance criteria. But no matter how high-performing a building is, can it really be considered sustainable if a worker is seriously or fatally injured during its construction or maintenance? Stakeholders at all levels of a construction project – investors, owners, contractors and managers – should be integrating health and safety into their sustainability goals.
How Does Sustainability Fit into Construction?
When thinking about sustainability, we should consider the work environment as part of our built environment, which includes all the man-made structures where we live, work and play such as homes, transportation systems and buildings. Today, the concept of a sustainable built environment mostly concerns issues like resource efficiency and how future occupants will use the space, but not necessarily the workers who actually construct the space. Reframing the construction process in a way that incorporates the health and safety implications of a building’s construction into its design parameters from the beginning would integrate occupational health and safety with environmental health and safety.
One way project owners and designers can employ this idea is by utilizing Prevention through Design (PtD). This is a concept coined by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health that describes efforts to anticipate health and safety hazards at all levels of a project and design them out to avoid occupational injuries, illnesses and fatalities. For example, when designing a building with a skylight, PtD principles would consider the fall risk associated with such a structure and install safeguards for protection. Another example would be installing parapet walls onto a flat roof to act as both a design feature and a guardrail. The idea is to include safety – for construction workers as well as the building’s future occupants and staff – as part of the building’s function and eliminate hazards as early as possible.
Regardless of planning measures, however, if the work environment neglects health and safety, employees will suffer injuries, illnesses and even fatalities that inhibit their ability to work and live healthy lives. For example, 22 million workers are exposed to potentially damaging noise on the job every year. After 15-20 years on the job, it is extremely common for these workers to experience significant hearing loss that impacts them for the rest of their lives. Similarly, every year, millions of workers are at risk for developing chronic, incurable lung disease from chemical exposures on the job. And while some illnesses can be attributed to age or other lifestyle factors, many construction-specific hazards are largely preventable through the use of controls and best practices like the use of engineering controls, hearing protection and respiratory protection, job rotation, safety training or shift design.
Workers’ Memorial Day
The sustainability movement has largely excluded conversations about workers’ well-being, but when thousands of construction workers are dying on the job every year, it’s time for that to change.
Every year on April 28th, the U.S. and Canada observe Workers’ Memorial Day as a way to honor all the workers who have been killed or injured on the job. This observance is a reminder why the labor movement continues to fight for strong health and safety protections for workers. As we take the time to remember those who have died or been injured on the job, let’s also look at health and safety through the lens of sustainability and continue to fight for the longevity of our workforce. Much like how a sustainable building should leave the environment in the same condition it was found, every job should allow workers to leave a shift as healthy as they were when they started.