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Leed the Way to Safety

We have written previously on LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) certification program for green buildings. In this column, the Safety Guys will look at some of the potential health and safety issues involved when building green.

Vince McLeod, CIH

Vince McLeod is an American Board of Industrial Hygiene-certified industrial hygienist and the senior industrial hygienist with Ascend Environmental + Health Hygiene LLC in Winter Garden, Florida. He has more...

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We have written previously on LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) certification program for green buildings. Now that we know what building green means and how to do it, are there any drawbacks? What does the research laboratory manager really need to know? In this column, the Safety Guys will look at some of the potential health and safety issues involved when building green.

Review of “building green”

The U.S. Green Building Council was founded in 1993 and now represents more than 20,000 organizations from every sector of the building industry. The USGBC and its LEED initiative aim to move construction toward environmental responsibility and sustainability. In 2000, the USGBC introduced LEED, a nationally recognized rating system for design, construction and operation of highperformance green buildings. First implemented for new commercial construction, LEED rating systems are now in place for existing buildings, schools, retail and healthcare, as well as systems under development for laboratories.1

The LEED rating systems measure performance in seven key areas and award four levels of certification based on the aggregate scores achieved. The areas scored are sustainable site development, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, innovative design, and regional priority. The four levels of LEED accreditation, ranked in order, are Certified, Silver, Gold and Platinum.

The reasons to “build green” and obtain LEED certification by following the rating system requirements are convincing. These projects, according to USGBC research, can generate up to 30 percent energy savings and 35 percent reduction of carbon emissions, use 30 to 50 percent less water, and generate 50 to 90 percent waste cost savings. All these benefits and more are realized for only a 1 to 7 percent increase in construction costs.2

How is health and safety impacted?

Designing and building green mainly focuses on minimizing environmental and resource impacts. It is exciting to see that building occupant health and productivity are also being considered. But is enough done, and are the approaches the most effective or desirable? And what about the construction worker’s health and safety?

In working through the LEED rating system requirements, there are particular areas to which the health and safety manager should give consideration. Granted, there are many positives to building green and obtaining LEED certification. But potential negatives exist, as well. By increasing our awareness and thinking about these issues at the beginning, we can minimize or possibly eliminate them from our green building project.

Considerations for the construction workers

Three of the key performance areas contain potential pitfalls for construction workers. We’ll discuss them in the order encountered under “LEED for New Construction.” First, in the section on sustainable site development, Credit 3 is for brownfield redevelopment. A “brownfield,” for those unfamiliar with the term, means “real property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.”3 The intent is to rehabilitate damaged sites, a good idea. But if you are building a project on a brownfield, then you had better make sure you have all the information available and have incorporated it into a comprehensive health and safety plan for use by all the various contractors and their construction crews.

The Materials and Resources section is another area with potential health and safety issues for construction crews. This section includes a requirement for a construction waste management plan and deals with recycling and material reuse. Collecting and storing recyclables leads to additional material handling (as much as two or three times more than usual)4 and the potential for increased sprains, strains and puncture injuries. The need for more dumpsters and containers on site can create congestion, resulting in traffic accidents, trips or falls. On the other hand, if waste management is set up logically and maintained properly, the result is better general housekeeping and a cleaner, more organized construction site.

A third area affecting workers during construction is under the Indoor Environmental Quality section. Credit 3.1 requires the development of an Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) management plan for the construction and preoccupancy phase. The purpose of this plan is to prevent IAQ problems resulting from construction activities by controlling pollutant sources; using lowemitting adhesives, sealants, paints and finishes; and protecting materials from moisture. This benefits both the construction workers and the building occupants.

LEED, building green and the building occupant

LEED for New Construction impacts building occupants directly in two key areas. The first is Building Commissioning, contained in the Energy and Atmosphere section. Commissioning is the process by which the building systems are verified as installed, calibrated and operating according to design. Because this includes the heating, ventilating and air conditioning system, it is important that a knowledgeable person review the test and balance and commissioning reports.

The entire Indoor Environmental Quality section is aimed at providing for the well-being of the building occupant. Two prerequisites must be met: minimum IAQ performance and control of environmental tobacco smoke. Additional credits are awarded for using low-emitting materials, controlling indoor chemical and pollutant sources, and implementing an IAQ management plan prior to occupancy.

Industrial hygienists and consultants have worked to solve indoor environmental quality problems since the late 1980s. We still face architectural features and design issues that lead to IEQ problems on a regular basis. Flat roofs, internally insulated ductwork, porous wall finishes in highmoisture areas, improperly installed (or missing) vapor barriers and poor access to ventilation equipment for maintenance are a few of the most common ones. Unfortunately, IEQ experts, and industrial hygienists in particular, have had little, if any, input into developing the LEED rating systems. Therefore, although the premise of LEED certification is a very good first step, we should continue striving to improve this process. Industrial hygienists and IEQ experts need to be involved in your construction or renovation project.


We have presented a brief overview of building green and LEED certification. We touched on the health and safety issues facing both construction workers and building occupants. We mentioned the need for the health and safety manager to raise his or her level of awareness and pointed out the major concerns to watch for during a green build (or any construction) project. In future articles, we plan to discuss these issues in more detail and present positive actions to incorporate into your management plan checklist. Until next time, remember, Safety First!


1. U.S. Green Building Council. Washington, D.C. 2007. http://www.

2. U.S. Green Building Council, LEED Resources. Washington, D.C. 2007.

3. “Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act,” Public Law 107-118 (H.R. 2869), January 2002.

4. “Green Design & Construction: Understanding the Effects on Construction Worker Safety and Health,” by John A. Gambatese, Sathyanarayanan Rajendran and Michael G. Behm. Professional Safety, May 2007.