LEED Rating’s Fatal Flaw: Sustainable Buildings, Disposable Workers

2015 Update:  The US Green Building Council recently added a "Prevention Through Design" LEED credit.  NIOSH and other occupational health organizations worked closely with USGBC in developing this important credit.  Worker health and safety is now incentivised by the LEED Rating system.  My article which called for such a credit is below.

Can a building project that causes worker deaths be labeled “sustainable”?  It seems reasonable that LEED certification of a building indicates it was designed, constructed and operated in a commendable way.  It may be reasonable, but it is not always true.  There is a glaring omission in the LEED rating system that undermines its legitimacy and leaves construction workers exposed to unnecessary risks.  A construction project with preventable worker deaths can achieve a very high rating for sustainability.  This raises the question of whether the health and safety of construction workers falls within the mission of the rating system. 

Having studied this for some time I believe the only conclusion that is reasonable is that the safety of the workers on the construction site is clearly within the scope of LEED’s mission. It is also clear that it should be a factor in the certification of a building.  In fact, the health and well being of people is at the very core of the rating system.  As Michael Behm, et al, point out:  ”…sustainable design and green buildings must account for both environmental and human resources throughout their lifecycles. Sustainability is a broader concept which, in addition to the environmental aspect, addresses the continuity of economic considerations, resource conservation, and social aspects of human society.” (Note 1)

There are several credits that directly address the health and well the occupants of the buildings.  While there are also credits that address VOC’s and other toxic materials on the job site, it is a baffling that the rating system does not include a comprehensive approach to the health and well being of the temporary occupants, the construction workers.  Justification for their inclusion can be found in the very first line of the USGBC’s statement of the purpose:  “The LEED Green Building Certification Program is a voluntary, consensus-based national rating system for buildings designed, constructed and operated for improved environmental and human health performance.” (emphasis added).  The clarity of the mission, with its emphasis on “human health performance”, would seem to support, even compel, consideration of onsite worker safety. 

The omission of comprehensive worker health and safety criteria is tragically highlighted in the largest project to achieve Leed Gold certification.  City Center in Las Vegas earned six LEED Gold Certifications on a complex in which six construction workers lost their lives.  The mega project opened last year and was highly promoted as a success for the LEED rating system.  The difficulties on the job site have been widely reported in the news media and were the subject of congressional hearings.  The worker fatalities had no apparent impact on the Gold certification that six elements of the project received from the LEED Green Building Certification System.   City Center was celebrated as a model of sustainable construction practice.   This is clearly not consistent with the LEED mission. 

It is important that the USGBC address the omission of a worker safety emphasis.  Construction is a highly hazardous industry.  Architects are surprised to hear that over 1,000 construction worker deaths occur each year.  That rate of about three deaths per day accounts for 20% of worker deaths in a industry that is just 7.5% of the workforce. (Note 1) The good news is that there are known construction methods that prevent injury and death.  Companies that make safety an emphasis have achieved very high levels of safety.  In other words, we know how to build safely, we just don’t do it on a consistent basis.

While “building green” is rapidly becoming the standard in construction, this approach has not been shown to increase worker safety.  In a study published in October 2009 in the Journal of Construction Engineering and Management greener projects, as measured by LEED credits achieved, did not see a statistically significant reduction in safety incidents. (Note 2)

There are two simple steps that can fix the LEED rating system’s safety omission.  First, create a system wide prerequisite that a worker death from a preventable construction injury would prohibit certification.  This one change would certainly save lives and the attention to prevention of deaths would undoubtedly also save many workers from other serious injuries.  Second, LEED should offer a credit for an “Enhanced Worker Safety Plan”.  Like many of the credits, this one would reward projects that go beyond recognized standards to achieve greater benefits than required by law.  It builds on the strength of the LEED approach of voluntary attainment of higher standards.  When the Leed rating is a risk, the motivation to implement the credit requirements is transmitted throughout the job site.  Many construction sites have worker safety as a top priority.  Those projects would not be penalized by either of the proposed changes.  In fact, they would be rewarded.  The projects that would lose points or certification would be those where workers safety is compromised.  Sounds like a good deal for everyone.  These two simple steps would be in the spirit of the underlying Leed Green Building Rating System objectives and would significantly advance worker safety.  It is time for the USGBC to weigh in on right side of the age old conflict between cost savings and safety.  Improving the “human health performance of buildings” should start with groundbreaking, not on moving in day.

By Paul Muller, AIA, LEED AP 


A sample of a proposed “Enhanced Worker Safety Plan” credit can be found at www.mullerarchitects.com.  Feel free to use it on projects now as an Innovative Design Credit.  All I ask is that you let me know how it goes and that you share any improvements you make.  PM

Note 1:  “Prevention through Design and Green Buildings: A US Perspective on Collaboration”  CIB W099 Conference 2009
Behm, Michael, Occupational Safety Program, East Carolina University
Lentz, Thomas, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
Heidel, Donna, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
Gambatese, John, School of Civil and Construction Engineering, Oregon State University

Note 2: “Impact of Green Building Design and Construction on Worker Safety and Health,” by Sathyanarayanan Rajendran, (Construction Safety Supervisor, Hoffman Construction Company, Portland, OR 97205. E-mail: sathy-rajendran@hoffmancorp.com), John A. Gambatese, (Associate Professor, Dept. of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering, Oregon State Univ., 220 Owen Hall, Corvallis, OR 97331 (corresponding author). E-mail: john.gambatese@oregonstate.edu), and Michael G. Behm, (Assistant Professor, Dept. of Technology Systems, East Carolina Univ., 231 Slay Hall, Greenville, NC 27858. E-mail: behmm@ecu.edu) 
Journal of Construction Engineering and Management, Vol. 135, No. 10, October 2009, pp. 1058-1066, (doi  10.1061/(ASCE)0733-9364(2009)135:10(1058))