Is LEED Construction Less Safe Than Traditional Construction?


Just how much safer is this flat roof v. your new living roof? A new study tells you


***UPDATE 2/16/12: For those of you that are interested in reading the whole study – hint hint, law firms – you can obtain a copy from the ASCE Library by following this link.***


A new study says that some LEED credits might carry an additional risk of worker injury of up to 41%. The study, published by the Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering Department at the University of Colorado Boulder, used empirical data to support their finding that a number of LEED credit carry substantial risks. The results might be a little frightening.


The UCB professor behind the study says that his interest was piqued when he saw statistics that suggest worker injury occurs up to 50% more on LEED projects. Instead of making a case study out of this interesting statistic, the professor elected to craft an empirical examination, using data collected from a wide sample of LEED projects. The study looks at each credit in the LEED system, comparing it to traditional construction.  For example – sustainable( living) roofing v. traditional (fabric sealed) roofing.


The findings surprised me:


With the information gathered, Hallowell and his team of researchers were able to identify 14 LEED credentials that may create heightened risks to construction workers. Most notable risks include a perceived 41% higher risk associated with installing sustainable roofing, a perceived 37% increase in risk from installing PV panels for on-site renewable energy, a perceived 36% additional risk of cuts, abrasions and lacerations from construction waste management and perceived 32% heightened risk of falls from installing skylights and atriums to meet the daylight and views credit.


The first thing that I must note is that the methodology behind this study appears to be a strong one. A well-crafted, well-sampled empirical study is about as good as you can get. Apparently, the USGBC agrees. Its spokesman, whose statement is provided in the article, agreed that the findings were troubling and that they were being taken under advisement by the USGBC.


The really great part about this study was that the researchers didn’t just track down a problem – they made suggested solutions. Read through the article for suggestions on how to reduce chemical burns, reduce falls through prefabrication, and increase accountability through monitoring. In short, it’s a commendable list of reasonable recommendations that both owners and builders might want to consider requiring in specifications.


What does this mean for liability and builder risk? Perhaps a lot.


This information is out there now, and that means increased accountability for injury. Contractors should do their very best to consider implementing improvements in their building process. It might also be time to update your safety manual to ensure that your workers know that you intend to enforce these changes. Finally, train your project managers to actually enforce them.


Owners may want to ensure that insurance provides coverage for these increased risks. It’s possible that insurers will look to studies like these to adjust underwriting guidelines, so check with your agent and read your policy. Owners may also want to utilize their contract to ensure that contractors comply with safety guidelines, or risk breach of contract.


Contact your construction attorney if you want more specific guidelines on protecting yourself against these risks.



7 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. 1

    The phrase “up to 41%” reads like an advertisement from my local used car lot. One wishes that journalism still consisted of careful writing rather than sensational writing.

    There is no good reason for increased worker fall injuries LEED or non-LEED projects, sloped roofing and skylights aside. OSHA-mandated fall protection systems provide protection against this.

    That leaves cuts and scrapes from handling construction waste at recycling dumpsters. How are they more hazardous than the mixed waste dumpsters previously used?

    How many LEED and non-LEED projects were compared? Are they an adequate sample? When was the construction? Where were they located? Are they commercial only, or residential as well where there are significant differences in safety enforcement? What factors were cited in the OSHA injury reports that identified elements related to LEED-specific design issues? This summary, and the original article, tell half the story. There may be more to the story, or not.

  2. 2


    Thanks for the comment. I wouldn’t call it “sensational” or “journalism” – let alone “sensational journalism.” It’s a simple law blog, discussing news that might impact contractors and contracts. It’s brief and to the point: there is a study out there that makes you wonder whether we need to think about liability differently.

    I do think that your questions about the sample, variables, scope, etc. of the study are important. It is still my biggest wonder as I am currently trying to obtain a copy of the complete study to assess the methods used.

    Even with those unanswered questions still out there – I still think the study should be a caution. It is better to protect against something than to not. The study at least does a good job of identifying key concerns and some potential remedies. I can get behind that type of problem solving, even if you do not agree to the magnitude of the problem.

    As lawyers, we cannot always be 100% subjective. We need to be as objective as possible. If the USGBC itself is concerned by the findings, we need to be as well.

    Thanks for comment. Good spitballing.

  3. Lloyd Kinch #

    I suspect that a substantial reason for greater accident rates in performance of this work is poor training of the folks selling and performing some of these non-traditional products installations. Many of the folks that have approached us with “green” solutions have been the old time snake oil salesman trying to get over by painting themselves green.
    Buyer beware or at least skeptical.

  4. 4

    If the design of the building calls for a particular component or system, it is the responsibility of the contractor and sub-contractor to build or refuse the project. You could argue that a project with 20% increased scope is likely to result in 20% more additional danger to the contractor. Correct. If you don’t want the job, stay home. If you want the job, incorporate the risks into your bid and bid accordingly. LEED has little bearing on this.

  5. 5

    I must agree with all of the posts to some degree.

    Construction safety has been a big concern for some time now (When was OSHA created?) and most good contractors conduct “Toolbox Talks” on a weekly basis to sort of remind the workers how to perform safely.

    I’m not being snide or demeaning to the lawyers but……….there are far too many of them and I believe that they create too much hand-wringing throughout all of America.

    This article seems to illustrate just that.

    Perhaps the legal tribe needs to spend more time on construction sites to gain a purer perspective of construction safety.

    No spitballs, no bullets…….just the truth. Sometimes it can be painful.

  6. 6

    Ron –

    I like the honesty. But your post makes a good point about a large portion of the legal profession, including the judges making decisions about the degree of danger on the job site. While I am a construction attorney that has a lot of experience on the job site, many are not. This is why studies like this require the attention of all attorneys, whether they agree or not; whether they think it’s flawed or not. Your legal counsel’s job is to keep you away from harm and that requires attention to all potential risks.

    Thanks for the comment.

  7. 7

    If we are training at the design level we should be training at the construction level, clear and simple. As had been pointed out above, there are job site safety requirements that trained contractors understand and take seriously as part of their business practices. Our organization has been training contractors on LEED compliance for over 2 years and have never once heard about increased safety concerns. Additionally organization deals with new products and new construction practices on a daily basis. When approached by new product manufacturers we estimate the success of the product based on its application AND its constructability. To suggest that we may not be able to move forward with different design requirements because they can not be safely constructed only suggests that we critically lack trained craftworkers on the jobsite.

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