Michael Behm: Worker Health & Safety Needed in Green Buildings

By Mallika Naguran

Singapore, 4 November 2013. Are green buildings safe for workers? Surprisingly, they may not be so.

Green design and construction aim to promote environmental sustainability and improved liveability. But, US research shows that construction injury of the US workforce accounts for over 20 percent of occupational-related deaths[1].

There is an apparent contradiction in ‘green’ construction. Developers commit towards buildings’ sustainability, using ‘green’ materials and receiving internationally recognised levels of ‘green certification’ even though practices do not incorporate adequate workforce safety and health.

Occupational safety expert Associate Professor Michael Behm, of East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, will address delegates on this issue in Singapore at the inaugural GreenUrbanScape Asia during 7-9 November 2013.  Having worked with NParks’ Centre for Urban Greenery and Ecology, as part of a recent fellowship in Singapore, he is able to speak about the integration of worker health and safety as a key component in ensuring green building sustainability in Singapore, Asia and the US.

Gaia Discovery connects with Professor Behm to find out just what can be done to improve safety and health of workers in building for sustainability.

What are some of the issues surrounding worker safety and health in construction of green buildings? 

Rajendran et al. (2009) found suggestive evidence that green building projects experienced higher injury rates than comparable non-green building projects. In case study research, Fortunato et al. (2012) found that: (1) workers on LEED projects are exposed to work at height, electrical current, unstable soils, and heavy equipment for a greater period of time than workers on traditional projects; (2) workers are exposed to new high-risk tasks such as constructing atria, installing green roofs, and installing photovoltaic (PV) panels; and (3) some credits have positive impact on construction worker safety and health when low volatile organic compound adhesives and sealants are specified.

Why do these issues exist?

There is no doubt that construction is a hazardous trade.  The issues exist because worker safety and health practice needs to be initiated from the start of a project rather than waiting until workers are at the site.  However, globally, we can do better, particularly if we think about worker safety and hazards early in the conceptual and detailed phases of the project and carry that thinking through during procurement and planning.  The upstream predicts the downstream. Stephenson (1991) said it best that the safety of any operation is determined long before the people, procedures, and equipment come together at the work site.  

What do workers need shielding from in particular if they are working in construction sites?

Risk of falling from height seems to be the greatest risk.  In the US, worker fatalities have occurred from the task of installing photovoltaic (PV) panels.

How can environmentally-friendly buildings be designed with higher safety measures for workers? Whose responsibility is it to ensure that this is being done?

Being green is becoming a mainstream concept, and eventually green design and construction will merge with conventional practice.  McGraw-Hill Construction (2013) reports that the green building market is becoming standard design and construction practice in the United States, growing from 2% in 2005 to 44% in 2012. Unless, however, we take steps to integrate safety and health best practices into green design and construction, there is no reason to think that the industry safety record will change.   On the other hand, integrating safety and health into green construction has an important potential to bring about positive change on industry safety performance.  This is because green initiatives serve as an entry point for industry leadership and diffusion of new ideas, thus broadly influencing the building and construction industry.   

In the US, we are working to develop enhanced green building credit language.  We are studying specific green building elements like skyrise greenery.  In 2011, I had the privilege to be a Research Fellow at Singapore’s Centre for Urban Greenery and Ecology and learn about safe design of skyrise greenery.  CUGE’s unique guidance document, CS E02: 2010, Safe Design for Rooftop Greenery set the stage for green roof safety and is currently being revised.  As our knowledge increases we get better at safe design and foreseeing hazards and risks during construction, operation, and maintenance. Ultimately, the client or building owner sets the goals for the project and worker safety should be a goal that is not compromised.  Building owners need better information and will look to green building certification specifications.

Do national and international green building codes and assessment systems adequately provide for worker health and safety? What can be done to improve the situation?

The terms “Green” and “Sustainable” are often used interchangeably in describing building practices that improve the environment.  We view their transposable use as incorrect.  Green buildings are structures that have significantly reduced or eliminated negative impacts on the environment and the occupants.  Sustainability is a broader term that encompasses social equity aspects, including occupational safety and health.  Rating systems, such as the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) and the Singapore Green Mark put little, if any, focus on the safety and health of the initial occupants, the construction workers, or those that maintain these buildings. Yet such rating systems and their proponents represent a largely untapped opportunity for safety and health practitioners to enlist in efforts to promote designing for safer workplaces during the building’s construction and maintenance.


1. Toscano & Windau (2007). US Construction Safety Statistic.

2. Fortunato, III, B. R., Hallowell, M. R., Behm, M., Dewlaney, K. (2012). “Identification of Safety Risks for High-Performance Sustainable Construction Projects.” Journal of Construction Engineering and Management, 138(4), 499-508.

3. McGraw-Hill Construction (2013). World Green Building Trends.

4. Rajendran, S., Gambatese, J. A., and Behm, M. G. (2009). “Impact of Green Building Design and Construction on Worker Safety and Health.” Journal of Construction Engineering and Management, 135(10), 1058-1066.

5. Stephenson, J. (1991). System Safety 2000: A Practical Guide for Planning, Managing, and Conducting System Safety Programs. Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York.