December 24, 2013 The Pump Handle 2Comment

While we’re on vacation, we’re re-posting content from earlier in the year. This post was originally published on April 24, 2013.

By Liz Borkowski

For this Workers’ Memorial Week, the National Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) has released “Preventable Deaths: The Tragedy of Workplace Fatalities,” a report that tells the stories of six workers killed on the job and promotes solutions to prevent other workers from sharing similar fates. The report notes that in 2011, 4,609 workers were killed, and construction was the deadliest industry sector, with 721 worker fatalities.  The report tells the story of one construction worker killed on the job:

One day in April 2009, Orestes Martinez (29) and two co-workers were working at a construction site for the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, helping to install a two-ton, lead-lined door in the radiation department of the hospital. They were moving the door by hand since no lift device was available. During the installation, the door fell on Martinez, crushing him to death.

The report includes thoughts from Adriana Martinez, Orestes Martinez’s wife. She also told her story for the six-minute video “Our loved ones died at unsafe workplaces,” which features the stories of four families who lost a loved one to a fatal work-related injury.

National COSH’s report includes several important recommendations for federal OSHA, the US Congress, and states to strengthen worker protections. In addition to those recommendations, there are steps that people in charge of building design and construction can take to protect workers at every stage of a building’s life cycle.

At last week’s Good Jobs, Green Jobs conference, Christine Branche and Matt Gillen of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Office of Construction Safety and Health delivered a fascinating presentation on using a “Life Cycle Safety” approach to ensure that green buildings are safe buildings. We’ve seen a lot of interest in green buildings in recent years, as companies seek to reduce their energy use and earn environmental seals of approval like the US Green Building Council’s LEED certification. So far, however, such green certifications haven’t lived up to their potential to protect the workers who build, maintain, and eventually demolish or refurbish the buildings.

Matt Gillen’s photo of a worker fixing an HVAC system (below) captures several ways that a poorly designed building can be hazardous for workers. This worker didn’t have easy access to the machine – he had to climb a ladder to get to it, and then didn’t have enough space between the equipment and the edge of the building. Without an easily accessible power supply, he had to run an extension cord up to the roof, which presents a potential electrical hazard as well as something additional to trip over. The thing that makes me cringe the most, though, is that he’s sitting on a low parapet and looks like he could very easily fall over the edge.


NIOSH takes the perspective that “a sustainable product, process or technology should not only protect the environment and the consumer but also the worker. Green jobs must be safe jobs.” To ensure that green buildings offer safe jobs, it’s important to consider worker health and safety at the design stage. Architects and engineers should collaborate with occupational health professionals to consider how a building will be constructed, maintained, and repaired or demolished. They should consider all the hazards workers might face at each stage and modify their designs to eliminate or reduce those hazards.

Features common in green buildings can present occupational hazards if those involved in design and construction planning don’t consider workers sufficiently. Installing and maintaining solar panels, for instance, can be hazardous; workers can fall off roofs or through skylights and can be electrocuted. At the design stage, architects can reduce these hazards by ensuring workers installing, repairing, and cleaning solar panels have enough room to maneuver around the solar panels; specifying guardrails or parapets high enough to prevent workers from toppling off the roof; and including anchor, or tie-off, points for workers using safety harnesses. Ensuring easy access to the roof – e.g., by a stairway rather than a ladder – is important, too, especially because solar panels need regular cleaning to operate efficiently.

Ideally, these “upstream” modifications will reduce risks, and additional “downstream” practices can address the remaining risk. The California Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation (FACE) program responded to a rash of deaths among construction workers installing solar panels by producing a video and fact sheets about risks and preventive measures. These include using fall protection systems and ensuring that lifts are available to hoist solar panels to the roof, so that workers aren’t trying to manually carry panels up ladders. Construction planning is important for ensuring that lift equipment is available, and it can also allow for some assembly to be done on the ground rather than on the roof. At the NIOSH presentation, I also learned that workers can use solar blankets to keep light from getting to solar panels while they’re being worked on – in essence, shutting off the electricity by blocking sunlight.

OSHA’s Fall Prevention Campaign, developed in partnership with NIOSH, lays out a three-step “Plan, Provide, Train” process for preventing falls throughout the construction industry. Their resources include educational resources for employers and workers, many of them geared to workers with limited English proficiency.

NIOSH has made progress in working with the US Green Building Council and others to integrate worker health and safety into green building design; check out their Prevention Through Design site for more. With better planning, fewer families will join Orestes Martinez’s family in grieving for a loved one killed on the job.

2 thoughts on “Preventing worker deaths through better building design

  1. Lots of violations/unsafe practices in the picture of the guy working on the AC.

    There is insufficient work space in front of the access panels on the condensers and disconnects. The units should have been rotated when first installed. The drop hazard is not guarded by a rail. An accidental shock or slipping with a tool could easily send him over the edge. He has strung an extension cord over the roof edge when many code authorities demand there should be a receptacle near the equipment for service work. Ideally the ladder would be tied off at the top to the roof to keep it from sliding during the critical moments when mounting and dismounting onto the roof.

  2. Just say UNIONS. You want that guy in the picture to have a safe work environment? Hand him a union card, and give the union enough teeth to shut down the jobsite during installation unless the equipment is installed in a manner that is safe to maintain.

    It’s all about POWER. When property owners and employers have all the power, and workers have none, the result is what you see. When workers have the power of collective bargaining, and the political power that goes along with, the result is a safer work environment.

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