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Is LEED Construction not safe?

The construction of environmentally friendly LEED certified buildings has grown at a torrid pace in the past few years as the demand for "green buildings" has soared. In fact, it even prompted the creation of new legislation to address the performance bonds needed for green construction, although its passage is still being ironed out. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), the system of ratings that provides design blueprints for the construction of green buildings and structures of all shapes and sizes, certifies 1.6 million square feet of building space a day, according to the U.S. Green Building Council. But recently, new safety concerns over LEED requirements and credits have surfaced, putting into question the danger of using LEED standards in construction.

The potential safety hazards of environmentally friendly building construction were never fully delved into until a recent empirical study comparing injury rates at LEED-certified construction sites to those at traditional construction sites. According to Matthew Hallowell, assistant professor of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder, found that LEED construction locations had a 50 percent higher injury rate than non-LEED sites. Hallowell and his team visited and made observations at various LEED and non-LEED construction sites, pored over injury reports, and conducted interviews in their process of completing their study.

Their final work, titled "Identification of Safety Risks for High Performance Sustainable Construction Projects," was, as Hallowell called it, "a comprehensive analysis where we looked credit by credit at the construction and design for this type of building [LEED] and how that compared to what we traditionally do." Hallowell and his researchers pinpointed more than a dozen LEED credentials which they say heightened the possibility of injury to workers at construction sites. Because of the significant differences in materials and construction methods that LEED calls for, some LEED credits led to a one-third higher risk of workplace injury compared to their traditional construction counterparts.

For example, Hallowell and his team found that LEED certifications for sustainable roofing heightened the injury risk to construction workers by 41 percent. In LEED building construction, white roofing is the preferred sustainable choice compared to traditional black roof material. Because the white supplies that LEED recommends are slipperier and weigh more than the black roofing supplies, they tend to cause more slips and falls from workers.

The study also found a 37 percent increase in risk of injury with installing heavy solar panels and an extra 36 percent injury risk related to waste management when workers have to go "dumpster diving" to look for potentially recyclable materials in the trash. Construction on buildings that want to meet LEED standards on daylight and outside views enhanced the injury risk of workers who install large windows or skylights at a high elevation. In all three cases, non-LEED construction would not have called for the potentially hazardous type of work to be done.

When confronted with the results of the study, Brendan Owens, the U.S. Green Building Council's vice president of LEED Technical Development, said he was "very surprised" with the results. "LEED buildings are substantively different than non-LEED buildings and while there are risks in all construction, we did not expect green-building construction would have higher incidence of accidents," he noted.

But results are results and the methodology of the UCB study is rock-solid. So are its conclusions, which seriously call into question the safety concerns regarding LEED certifications and LEED construction sites. LEED's push for greener, more sustainable buildings is commendable but with new evidence of injury risks to workers at LEED sites, the U.S. Green Building Council must consider new safety guidelines.